DARPA project advances switch to fiber optics in aircraft

Fiber-optic networks will soon become ubiquitous in U.S. military aircraft because of their advantages over copper and multimode fiber cables. This will save on weight, boost on-board communications, resist harsh environments and enable faster upgrades.

APIC Corp has solved the problems that prevented each fiber from carrying multiple digital and analog signals

About 2% (9,000 pounds) of the total weight of a Boeing 747-200 jet plane is copper. Included in that weight is 632,000 feet of copper wire. Some of the copper is for shielding against lightning strikes and some is for communication systems and electronics.

The fiber networks project, called Network Enabled by WDM Highly Integrated Photonics, will replace all current aircraft wiring with a single-mode fiber-optic network.

The DARPA project is Network Enabled by Wavelength division multiplexing Highly Integrated Photonics (NEW-HIP).

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.

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.

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.

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