In a paper published Tuesday in Optica, researchers from Internet.org’s Connectivity Lab have outlined a new type of light detector that can be used for free-space optical communication, a communication technique that uses light to send data wirelessly.
Free-space optical communication works by encoding communication signals in laser beams. Transmitters on the ground or in satellites shoot that light through the air to receivers that can decode the data. (To understand this on simple terms, think of encoding and sending information through morse code using a flashlight.)
...many free-space optical communication systems use smaller receivers with complex pointing and tracking systems. Because laser beams are narrow and travel in straight lines from point A to point B, these receivers have to continuously maneuver to catch laser beams head-on...Imagine trying to water a small potted plant with a water gun from different angles...To maximize the amount of water you catch, you have to constantly move the pot around.
The Facebook researchers’ solution to this problem is a light detector that doesn’t need pointing and tracking, but still allows for fast transmission...Facebook’s detector contains a spherical bundle of special fluorescent fibers. The bundle, somewhere between the size of a golf ball and tennis ball, is able to absorb blue laser light from any direction and re-emit it as green light. Because that green light is diffuse, it can then be funneled to a small receiver that converts the light back to data...imagine that instead of a water gun, you’re pointing a blow dart gun at a water balloon attached to a funnel over the potted plant. As soon as you hit the balloon, it pops and releases water. With the addition of the balloon, you’ve eliminated the need to move the pot around. You can shoot at the water balloon from any direction, and the plant will get watered.
Facebook’s new detector is able to achieve fast data rates of two gigabits per second — several orders of magnitude higher than those from radio frequencies — because light has a higher frequency than radio waves, and because the fluorescence process is fast. Free-space optical communication can also carry more information than radio communication, and is more secure because narrow laser beams are harder to intercept than wide radio waves.
The technology fits in with Facebook’s plans to beam internet access down from the skies using drones.