Military aircraft flying to all-fiber network gear

Fiber networks to become standard equipment in military aircraft

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Looking to significantly reduce weight, improve on-board communications and make it easier to upgrade avionics, the US military is developing prototype photonic gear for use in all aircraft.

Behind such a drastic shift is a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project underway with an ungainly moniker: Network Enabled by Wavelength division multiplexing Highly Integrated Photonics (NEW-HIP).

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NEW-HIP basically looks to replace current aircraft wiring with a single-mode fiber-optic network, where each fiber can carry multiple digital and analog signals, DARPA stated.  

"NEW-HIP will develop prototype photonic transmitters and receivers for use in such a fiber-optic network, carrying both digital and analog signals, to support advanced electronic warfare, radar and communications systems, as well as to control mission stores, flight components and navigation. This offers many advantages over current copper and multimode fiber cables, including greatly reduced weight, resistance to harsh environmental conditions and ability to interconnect dozens of components simultaneously," DARPA stated.

The most important advantage is the ability to dynamically reconfigure the logical connections of the fiber optic network. "Converting a fixed point-to-point cable infrastructure of tactical aircraft to a reconfigurable fiber-optic network that remains for the life of the air frame has the potential to save the Defense Department billions of dollars over the lifecycle of an aircraft fleet," said Adel Saleh, DARPA program manager in a statement.

The agency said modern military aircraft typically feature miles of heavily shielded copper wire cables that connect a multitude of components. "This cabling is heavy and subject to deterioration due to harsh environmental conditions encountered in normal flight operations. In addition, cables needed for carrying analog radio frequency signals are expensive, fragile and difficult to install and replace. Some more modern aircraft employ multimode fiber cables, which can carry only a single digital signal," DARPA stated.

Current prototype digital integrated transmitters are designed to support tuning over 32 wavelength channels, each carrying 10 gigabit-per-second data rates. The associated digital receiver can support the selection of any combination of four simultaneous outputs from the 32 channels.

Size and power specifications were designed so that these components can be directly adapted to existing avionics systems, easing deployment of this technology on a wide scale, DARPA stated.

Electronics company APIC last year got $9 million in funding for development of NEW-HIP devices and testing is expected to begin this year.

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