Optical communication, also known as optical telecommunication, is communication at a distance using light to carry information. It can be performed visually or by using electronic devices. The earliest basic forms of optical communication date back several millennia, while the earliest electrical device created to do so was the photophone, invented in 1880.
Communication is the act of conveying meanings from one entity or group to another through the use of mutually understood signs, symbols, and semiotic rules.
Light is electromagnetic radiation within a certain portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The word usually refers to visible light, which is the visible spectrum that is visible to the human eye and is responsible for the sense of sight. Visible light is usually defined as having wavelengths in the range of 400–700 nanometres (nm), or 4.00 × 10−7 to 7.00 × 10−7 m, between the infrared and the ultraviolet. This wavelength means a frequency range of roughly 430–750 terahertz (THz).
Electronics comprises the physics, engineering, technology and applications that deal with the emission, flow and control of electrons in vacuum and matter. The identification of the electron in 1897, along with the invention of the vacuum tube, which could amplify and rectify small electrical signals, inaugurated the field of electronics and the electron age.
An optical communication system uses a transmitter, which encodes a message into an optical signal, a channel, which carries the signal to its destination, and a receiver, which reproduces the message from the received optical signal. When electronic equipment is not employed the 'receiver' is a person visually observing and interpreting a signal, which may be either simple (such as the presence of a beacon fire) or complex (such as lights using color codes or flashed in a Morse code sequence).
In electronics and telecommunications, a transmitter or radio transmitter is an electronic device which produces radio waves with an antenna. The transmitter itself generates a radio frequency alternating current, which is applied to the antenna. When excited by this alternating current, the antenna radiates radio waves.
A message is a discrete unit of communication intended by the source for consumption by some recipient or group of recipients. A message may be delivered by various means, including courier, telegraphy, carrier pigeon and electronic bus. A message can be the content of a broadcast. An interactive exchange of messages forms a conversation.
A communication channel or simply channel refers either to a physical transmission medium such as a wire, or to a logical connection over a multiplexed medium such as a radio channel in telecommunications and computer networking. A channel is used to convey an information signal, for example a digital bit stream, from one or several senders to one or several receivers. A channel has a certain capacity for transmitting information, often measured by its bandwidth in Hz or its data rate in bits per second.
Free-space optical communication has been deployed in space, while terrestrial forms are naturally limited by geography, weather and the availability of light. This article provides a basic introduction to different forms of optical communication.
Free-space optical communication (FSO) is an optical communication technology that uses light propagating in free space to wirelessly transmit data for telecommunications or computer networking. "Free space" means air, outer space, vacuum, or something similar. This contrasts with using solids such as optical fiber cable.
Visual techniques such as smoke signals, beacon fires, hydraulic telegraphs, ship flags and semaphore lines were the earliest forms of optical communication.Hydraulic telegraph semaphores date back to the 4th century BCE Greece. Distress flares are still used by mariners in emergencies, while lighthouses and navigation lights are used to communicate navigation hazards.
A beacon is an intentionally conspicuous device designed to attract attention to a specific location. A common example is the lighthouse, which provides a fixed location that can used to navigate around obstacles or into port. More modern examples include a variety of radio beacons that can be read on radio direction finders in all weather, and radar transponders that appear on radar displays.
A hydraulic telegraph is either of two different hydraulic-telegraph telecommunication systems. The earliest one was developed in 4th-century BC Greece, while the other was developed in 19th-century AD Britain. The Greek system was deployed in combination with semaphoric fires, while the latter British system was operated purely by hydraulic fluid pressure.
A lighthouse is a tower, building, or other type of structure designed to emit light from a system of lamps and lenses and to serve as a navigational aid for maritime pilots at sea or on inland waterways.
The heliograph uses a mirror to reflect sunlight to a distant observer.When a signaler tilts the mirror to reflect sunlight, the distant observer sees flashes of light that can be used to transmit a prearranged signaling code. Naval ships often use signal lamps and Morse code in a similar way.
A heliograph is a wireless telegraph that signals by flashes of sunlight reflected by a mirror. The flashes are produced by momentarily pivoting the mirror, or by interrupting the beam with a shutter. The heliograph was a simple but effective instrument for instantaneous optical communication over long distances during the late 19th and early 20th century. Its main uses were military, survey and forest protection work. Heliographs were standard issue in the British and Australian armies until the 1960s, and were used by the Pakistani army as late as 1975.
A mirror is an object that reflects light in such a way that, for incident light in some range of wavelengths, the reflected light preserves many or most of the detailed physical characteristics of the original light, called specular reflection. This is different from other light-reflecting objects that do not preserve much of the original wave signal other than color and diffuse reflected light, such as flat-white paint.
Reflection is the change in direction of a wavefront at an interface between two different media so that the wavefront returns into the medium from which it originated. Common examples include the reflection of light, sound and water waves. The law of reflection says that for specular reflection the angle at which the wave is incident on the surface equals the angle at which it is reflected. Mirrors exhibit specular reflection.
Aircraft pilots often use visual approach slope indicator (VASI) projected light systems to land safely, especially at night. Military aircraft landing on an aircraft carrier use a similar system to land correctly on a carrier deck. The coloured light system communicates the aircraft's height relative to a standard landing glideslope. As well, airport control towers still use Aldis lamps to transmit instructions to aircraft whose radios have failed.
The visual approach slope indicator (VASI) is a system of lights on the side of an airport runway threshold that provides visual descent guidance information during approach. These lights may be visible from up to 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) during the day and up to 32 kilometres (20 mi) or more at night.
An aircraft carrier is a warship that serves as a seagoing airbase, equipped with a full-length flight deck and facilities for carrying, arming, deploying, and recovering aircraft. Typically, it is the capital ship of a fleet, as it allows a naval force to project air power worldwide without depending on local bases for staging aircraft operations. Carriers have evolved since their inception in the early twentieth century from wooden vessels used to deploy balloons to nuclear-powered warships that carry numerous fighters, strike aircraft, helicopters, and other types of aircraft. While heavier aircraft such as fixed-wing gunships and bombers have been launched from aircraft carriers, it is currently not possible to land them. By its diplomatic and tactical power, its mobility, its autonomy and the variety of its means, the aircraft carrier is often the centerpiece of modern combat fleets. Tactically or even strategically, it replaced the battleship in the role of flagship of a fleet. One of its great advantages is that, by sailing in international waters, it does not interfere with any territorial sovereignty and thus obviates the need for overflight authorizations from third party countries, reduce the times and transit distances of aircraft and therefore significantly increase the time of availability on the combat zone.
In the present day a variety of electronic systems optically transmit and receive information carried by pulses of light. Fiber-optic communication cables are now employed to send the great majority of the electronic data and long distance telephone calls that are not conveyed by either radio, terrestrial microwave or satellite. Free-space optical communications are also used every day in various applications.
A 'semaphore telegraph', also called a 'semaphore line', 'optical telegraph', 'shutter telegraph chain', 'Chappe telegraph', or 'Napoleonic semaphore', is a system used for conveying information by means of visual signals, using towers with pivoting arms or shutters, also known as blades or paddles. Information is encoded by the position of the mechanical elements; it is read when the shutter is in a fixed position.
Semaphore lines were a precursor of the electrical telegraph. They were far faster than post riders for conveying a message over long distances, but far more expensive and less private than the electrical telegraph lines which would later replace them. The maximum distance that a pair of semaphore telegraph stations can bridge is limited by geography, weather and the availability of light; thus, in practical use, most optical telegraphs used lines of relay stations to bridge longer distances. Each relay station would also require its complement of skilled operator-observers to convey messages back and forth across the line.
The modern design of semaphores was first foreseen by the British polymath Robert Hooke, who first gave a vivid and comprehensive outline of visual telegraphy in a 1684 submission to the Royal Society. His proposal (which was motivated by military concerns following the Battle of Vienna the preceding year) was not put into practice during his lifetime.
The first operational optical semaphore line arrived in 1792, created by the French engineer Claude Chappe and his brothers, who succeeded in covering France with a network of 556 stations stretching a total distance of 4,800 kilometres (3,000 mi). It was used for military and national communications until the 1850s.
Many national services adopted signaling systems different from the Chappe system. For example, Britain and Sweden adopted systems of shuttered panels (in contradiction to the Chappe brothers' contention that angled rods are more visible). In Spain, the engineer Agustín de Betancourt developed his own system which was adopted by that state. This system was considered by many experts in Europe better than Chappe's, even in France.
These systems were popular in the late 18th to early 19th century but could not compete with the electrical telegraph, and went completely out of service by 1880.
Semaphore Flags is the system for conveying information at a distance by means of visual signals with hand-held flags, rods, disks, paddles, or occasionally bare or gloved hands. Information is encoded by the position of the flags, objects or arms; it is read when they are in a fixed position.
Semaphores were adopted and widely used (with hand-held flags replacing the mechanical arms of shutter semaphores) in the maritime world in the 19th century. They are still used during underway replenishment at sea and are acceptable for emergency communication in daylight or, using lighted wands instead of flags, at night.
The newer flag semaphore system uses two short poles with square flags, which a signaler holds in different positions to convey letters of the alphabet and numbers. The transmitter holds one pole in each hand, and extends each arm in one of eight possible directions. Except for in the rest position, the flags cannot overlap. The flags are colored differently based on whether the signals are sent by sea or by land. At sea, the flags are colored red and yellow (the Oscar flags), while on land, they are white and blue (the Papa flags). Flags are not required, they just make the characters more obvious.
Optical fiber is the most common type of channel for optical communications. The transmitters in optical fiber links are generally light-emitting diodes (LEDs) or laser diodes. Infrared light, rather than visible light is used more commonly, because optical fibers transmit infrared wavelengths with less attenuation and dispersion. The signal encoding is typically simple intensity modulation, although historically optical phase and frequency modulation have been demonstrated in the lab. The need for periodic signal regeneration was largely superseded by the introduction of the erbium-doped fiber amplifier, which extended link distances at significantly lower cost.
Signal lamps (such as Aldis lamps), are visual signaling devices for optical communication (typically using Morse code). Modern signal lamps are a focused lamp which can produce a pulse of light. In large versions this pulse is achieved by opening and closing shutters mounted in front of the lamp, either via a manually operated pressure switch or, in later versions, automatically.
With hand held lamps, a concave mirror is tilted by a trigger to focus the light into pulses. The lamps are usually equipped with some form of optical sight, and are most commonly deployed on naval vessels and also used in airport control towers with coded aviation light signals.
Aviation light signals are used in the case of a radio failure, an aircraft not equipped with a radio, or in the case of a hearing-impaired pilot. Air traffic controlers have long used signal light guns to direct such aircraft. The light gun's lamp has a focused bright beam capable of emitting three different colors: red, white and green. These colors may be flashing or steady, and provide different instructions to aircraft in flight or on the ground (for example, "cleared to land" or "cleared for takeoff"). Pilots can acknowledge the instructions by wiggling their plane's wings, moving their ailerons if they are on the ground, or by flashing their landing or navigation lights during night time. Only 12 simple standardized instructions are directed at aircraft using signal light guns as the system is not utilized with Morse code.
The photophone (originally given an alternate name, radiophone) is a communication device which allowed for the transmission of speech on a beam of light. It was invented jointly by Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Charles Sumner Tainter on February 19, 1880, at Bell's 1325 'L' Street laboratory in Washington, D.C.Both were later to become full associates in the Volta Laboratory Association, created and financed by Bell.
On June 21, 1880, Bell's assistant transmitted a wireless voice telephone message of considerable distance, from the roof of the Franklin School to the window of Bell's laboratory, some 213 meters (about 700 ft.) away.
Bell believed the photophone was his most important invention. Of the 18 patents granted in Bell's name alone, and the 12 he shared with his collaborators, four were for the photophone, which Bell referred to as his 'greatest achievement', telling a reporter shortly before his death that the photophone was "the greatest invention [I have] ever made, greater than the telephone".
The photophone was a precursor to the fiber-optic communication systems which achieved popular worldwide usage starting in the 1980s. U.S. Patent 235,199 Apparatus for Signalling and Communicating, called Photophone), was issued in December 1880, many decades before its principles came to have practical applications.The master patent for the photophone (
Free-space optics (FSO) systems are employed for 'last mile' telecommunications and can function over distances of several kilometers as long as there is a clear line of sight between the source and the destination, and the optical receiver can reliably decode the transmitted information.Other free-space systems can provide high-data-rate, long-range links using small, low-mass, low-power-consumption subsystems which make them suitable for communications in space. Various planned satellite constellations intended to provide global broadband coverage take advantage of these benefits and employ laser communication for inter-satellite links between the several hundred to thousand satellites effectively creating a space-based optical mesh network.
More generally, transmission of unguided optical signals is known as optical wireless communications (OWC). Examples include medium-range visible light communication and short-distance IrDA, using infrared LEDs.
A heliograph (Greek : Ἥλιος helios , meaning "sun", and γραφειν graphein , meaning "write") is a wireless solar telegraph that signals by flashes of sunlight (generally using Morse code) reflected by a mirror. The flashes are produced by momentarily pivoting the mirror, or by interrupting the beam with a shutter.
The heliograph was a simple but effective instrument for instantaneous optical communication over long distances during the late 19th and early 20th century. Its main uses were in military, surveys and forest protection work. They were standard issue in the British and Australian armies until the 1960s, and were used by the Pakistani army as late as 1975.
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Telegraphy is the long-distance transmission of textual messages where the sender uses symbolic codes, known to the recipient, rather than a physical exchange of an object bearing the message. Thus flag semaphore is a method of telegraphy, whereas pigeon post is not. Ancient signalling systems, although sometimes quite extensive and sophisticated as in China, were generally not capable of transmitting arbitrary text messages. Possible messages were fixed and predetermined and such systems are thus not true telegraphs.
In telecommunications, a repeater is an electronic device that receives a signal and retransmits it. Repeaters are used to extend transmissions so that the signal can cover longer distances or be received on the other side of an obstruction.
The photophone is a telecommunications device that allows transmission of speech on a beam of light. It was invented jointly by Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Charles Sumner Tainter on February 19, 1880, at Bell's laboratory at 1325 L Street in Washington, D.C. Both were later to become full associates in the Volta Laboratory Association, created and financed by Bell.
A semaphore telegraph is an early system of conveying information by means of visual signals, using towers with pivoting shutters, also known as blades or paddles. Information is encoded by the position of the mechanical elements; it is read when the shutter is in a fixed position. The most widely used system was invented in 1792 in France by Claude Chappe, and was popular in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. Lines of relay towers with a semaphore rig at the top were built within line-of-sight of each other, at separations of 5–20 miles (8.0–32.2 km). Operators at each tower would watch the neighboring tower through a spyglass, and when the semaphore arms began to move spelling out a message, they would pass the message on to the next tower. This system was much faster than post riders for conveying a message over long distances, and also had cheaper long-term operating costs, once constructed. Semaphore lines were a precursor of the electrical telegraph, which would replace them half a century later, and would also be cheaper, faster, and more private. The line-of-sight distance between relay stations was limited by geography and weather, and prevented the optical telegraph from crossing wide expanses of water, unless a convenient island could be used for a relay station. Modern derivatives of the semaphore system include flag semaphore and the heliograph.
Photonics is the physical science of light (photon) generation, detection, and manipulation through emission, transmission, modulation, signal processing, switching, amplification, and sensing. Though covering all light's technical applications over the whole spectrum, most photonic applications are in the range of visible and near-infrared light. The term photonics developed as an outgrowth of the first practical semiconductor light emitters invented in the early 1960s and optical fibers developed in the 1970s.
Wireless communication, or sometimes simply wireless, is the transfer of information or power between two or more points that are not connected by an electrical conductor. The most common wireless technologies use radio waves. With radio waves distances can be short, such as a few meters for Bluetooth or as far as millions of kilometers for deep-space radio communications. It encompasses various types of fixed, mobile, and portable applications, including two-way radios, cellular telephones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and wireless networking. Other examples of applications of radio wireless technology include GPS units, garage door openers, wireless computer mice, keyboards and headsets, headphones, radio receivers, satellite television, broadcast television and cordless telephones. Somewhat less common methods of achieving wireless communications include the use of other electromagnetic wireless technologies, such as light, magnetic, or electric fields or the use of sound.
A continuous wave or continuous waveform (CW) is an electromagnetic wave of constant amplitude and frequency, almost always a sine wave, that for mathematical analysis is considered to be of infinite duration. Continuous wave is also the name given to an early method of radio transmission, in which a sinusoidal carrier wave is switched on and off. Information is carried in the varying duration of the on and off periods of the signal, for example by Morse code in early radio. In early wireless telegraphy radio transmission, CW waves were also known as "undamped waves", to distinguish this method from damped wave signals produced by earlier spark gap type transmitters.
A distress signal, also known as a distress call, is an internationally recognized means for obtaining help. Distress signals are communicated by transmitting radio signals, displaying a visually observable item or illumination, or making a sound audible from a distance.
A signaller in the armed forces is a specialist soldier, seaman or airman responsible for military communications. Signallers, a.k.a. Combat Signallers or signalmen or women, are commonly employed as radio or telephone operators, relaying messages for field commanders at the front line, through a chain of command which includes field headquarters and ultimately governments and non government organisations. Messages are transmitted and received via a communications infrastructure comprising fixed and mobile installations.
Military communications or military signals involve all aspects of communications, or conveyance of information, by armed forces. Military communications span from pre-history to the present. The earliest military communications were delivered by runners. Later, communications progressed to visual and audible signals, and then advanced into the electronic age. Examples from Jane's Military Communications include text, audio, facsimile, tactical ground-based communications, terrestrial microwave, tropospheric scatter, naval, satellite communications systems and equipment, surveillance and signal analysis, encryption and security and direction-finding and jamming.
A signal lamp is a visual signaling device for optical communication, typically using Morse code. Modern signal lamps are focused lamps which can produce a pulse of light. In large versions, this pulse is achieved by opening and closing shutters mounted in front of the lamp, either via a manually operated pressure switch, or, in later versions, automatically. With hand held lamps, a concave mirror is tilted by a trigger to focus the light into pulses. The lamps were usually equipped with some form of optical sight, and were most commonly used on naval vessels and in airport control towers. In manual signaling, a signalman would aim the light at the recipient ship and turn a lever, opening and closing the shutter over the lamp, to emit flashes of light to spell out text messages in Morse code. On the recipient ship, a signalman would observe the blinking light, often with binoculars, and translate the code into text.
The history of telecommunication began with the use of smoke signals and drums in Africa, the Americas and parts of Asia. In the 1790s, the first fixed semaphore systems emerged in Europe; however it was not until the 1830s that electrical telecommunication systems started to appear. This article details the history of telecommunication and the individuals who helped make telecommunication systems what they are today. The history of telecommunication is an important part of the larger history of communication.
Optical networking is a means of communication that uses signals encoded onto light to transmit information among various nodes of a telecommunications network. They operate from the limited range of a local-area network (LAN) or over a wide-area network (WAN), which can cross metropolitan and regional areas all the way to national, international and transoceanic distances. It is a form of optical communication that relies on optical amplifiers, lasers or LEDs and wave division multiplexing (WDM) to transmit large quantities of data, generally across fiber-optic cables. Because it is capable of achieving extremely high bandwidth, it is an enabling technology for today’s Internet and the communication networks that transmit the vast majority of all human and machine-to-machine information.
Signalman was a U.S. Navy rating for sailors that specialized in visual communication. See Signaller for more about the roles of Signalmen.
Fiber-optic communication is a method of transmitting information from one place to another by sending pulses of light through an optical fiber. The light forms an electromagnetic carrier wave that is modulated to carry information. Fiber is preferred over electrical cabling when high bandwidth, long distance, or immunity to electromagnetic interference are required.
Flag semaphore is the telegraphy system conveying information at a distance by means of visual signals with hand-held flags, rods, disks, paddles, or occasionally bare or gloved hands. Information is encoded by the position of the flags; it is read when the flag is in a fixed position. Semaphores were adopted and widely used in the maritime world in the 19th century. It is still used during underway replenishment at sea and is acceptable for emergency communication in daylight or using lighted wands instead of flags, at night.
Optical wireless communications (OWC) is a form of optical communication in which unguided visible, infrared (IR), or ultraviolet (UV) light is used to carry a signal.