Viasat and Durham University Collaborate to Advance Free-Space Optical Communication Networks

Researchers at Durham University are working with global satellite communications company Viasat to understand atmospheric turbulence in free-space optical (FSO) communications.

Durham University free-space optical communications (FSTO)
Laser Guide Star unit on La Palma, used for experiments on astronomy and free-space optical communications. Credit: Lisa Bardou
Durham University, Lisa Bardou

Leveraging a £200k investment from Viasat, Durham University will focus on developing free-space optics (FSO) turbulence channel characterisation for optical feeder links. This research will support delivery of a software-controlled telescope for turbulence characterisation, as well as prediction modelling.

Durham researchers are embarking on the first phase of a project to measure and mitigate optical turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere to support Viasat’s work in FSO communications networks.

The future of satellite communications

Free-space optical communication is a revolutionary way of using lasers to send and receive data in point-to-point terrestrial, space, and space to ground links. Using ultra-high bandwidths, laser communications provide larger and faster data transfer rates. In addition, FSO communication provides another layer of security with optical links being highly resistant to jamming, spoofing, and electro-magnetic interference.

Atmospheric disturbances, such as clouds and turbulence, can disrupt laser signals as they propagate through the atmosphere. This has slowed the adoption of FSO technology as these disturbances are hard to monitor and predict.

To overcome this, the team at Durham have developed the only optical turbulence measurement device capable of measuring continuously, day and night, and in strong turbulence conditions. This is an important step in making FSO technology become more commercially viable and easier to deploy.

Optimising ground station design

Leading the project is Associate Professor James Osborn in the Department of Physics, who will work with Viasat to further develop Durham’s measurement software so that it can be used and easily understood by non-specialists.

This state-of-the-art forecasting tool will optimise Viasat’s ground station design, as well as support operational decision-making such as network switching between ground stations based on atmospheric conditions.

<b>"We’re excited to collaborate with Durham University and their leading work on free space optics. We are committed to investing in key research and development for satellite technology, and Durham University was a clear choice, given their leading-edge work on free space optics. The results of their innovative research will be influential in the satellite communications industry, as we collaborate and bring their work from the lab to the marketplace.” </b><br/>
Dr. Anton Monk, Vice President and CTO for Wireless Initiatives, Viasat