TU Delft researchers and 20 partners will develop reliable and safe wireless broadband connections using light instead of radio waves. They anticipate that this technology will securely send and process digital data at high speeds, with low latency. For this research project, the team has been awarded €4.1 million from the Dutch Research Council’s (NWO) Perspectief program. TU Delft is also participating in the other five consortia that received Perspectief funding.
The consortium will develop the technology that ultimately may enable a ‘network of networks, in which satellite communications are seamlessly integrated with ground-based networks to provide satellite-to-satellite Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) and Software-Defined Networking (SDN). This simplified integration between terrestrial and satellite networks – free-space optical communication (FSO) – will open up new opportunities for the Internet of Things (IoT) and more accurate weather forecasting, for example. The consortium anticipates that the huge amount of available bandwidth, inherent security, little latency, and license-free operation will result in a 10- to 100-fold increase in wireless connectivity.
Wi-Fi and other wireless communications techniques are excellent, but they have their limits: there’s only so much data you can squeeze into the radiofrequency spectrum. Even with advanced signal modulation and spatial multiplexing techniques, it struggles to keep up with the exponentially growing data demand. 5G has to annex another part of the electromagnetic spectrum – the millimeter-wave domain – to open up additional capacity.
In the visible and infrared spectrum, there’s more bandwidth obtainable. Packets of light have been running through optical fibers for years, at high speed and with low latency and great energy efficiency. Attempts to release these photons from their glass prisons begun years ago, but there is still some work to do before radio waves get serious competition from optical wireless communication.
Six consortia in the Netherlands
TU Delft is participating in the six consortia that have been awarded a Perspectief grant. The Perspectief program is characterized in particular by the composition of the consortia: all the key players required to devise and develop practical solutions for real-life situations participate in these programs. To create a new paradigm for wireless communication that can be deployed safely and efficiently anytime, anywhere, the consortium’s academic team collaborates with companies from the aerospace industry and the high-end technology industry. The collaboration between technical universities (TU Delft, Eindhoven University of Technology, and Twente University), and Leiden University and the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam connect different worlds – from satellites in space to users at home.
I am extremely pleased that our Optical Wireless Superhighways address applications at all length scales, from meter distances for indoor applications to thousands of kilometers in space, bringing together both the terrestrial and the space domains, says Prof. E.K.A. (Eberhard) Gill, who leads the program.
The big question is when the world will start building the optical wireless superhighways (FSO) that the consortium is visualizing. “That’s hard to tell. All we expect is that FSO is adopted increasingly. Originally, it might be in niche applications such as beaming data from earth observation satellites. As FSO develops and matures, it will enter into further mainstream applications. Ultimately, it will compete with RF. FSO will make RF not obsolete. It won’t take fifty years to reach maturity in FSO; we could see exciting applications in the next ten years. After all, there’s a need for it in our increasingly digital evolution – the demand for bandwidth keeps growing. It will be a big market, and the consortium will give the Dutch industry a significant competitive advantage.”