News Feature | September 22, 2016

Georgia Tech Applies Photonics To Boost U.S. Electronic Warfare Capability

By Jof Enriquez,
Follow me on Twitter @jofenriq

georgia tech
Image courtesy of Rob Felt, Georgia Tech

Researchers at Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) are utilizing novel photonic integrated circuits (PICs) and other light-based technologies to enhance U.S. electronic warfare (EW) capabilities. Photonics-based technologies offer several advantages over traditional radio frequency (RF) systems in achieving this end.

Conventional RF systems operate within narrow bandwidths on the order of gigahertz (GHz), whereas optical systems can function with more than 1,000 times the bandwidth, on the order of terahertz (THz). Also, typical RF components using metal conductors consume between 10 and 20 percent of bandwidth per signal, compared to a fraction of bandwidth used by a "frequency-agnostic" optical carrier, which also offers long distance low-loss transfer of analog signals as the data runs through a fiber-optic cable.

“There is an enormous benefit to operating in the optical domain,” said Chris Ward, a senior research engineer who leads GTRI’s EW photonics development program, in a news release. “It is typically very difficult for digital and RF electronics to cover a large spectrum instantaneously – they have to switch between multiple components in order to cover a variety of bandwidths."

Because conventional RF technologies present increasingly higher costs, as well as technical and engineering barriers, researchers at Georgia Tech are turning to optical-based technologies, such as commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) photonic components and photonic integrated circuits (PICs). These optical devices offer substantial reductions in size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements.

Some of the Georgia Tech scientists’ research has included the design, fabrication, and experimental demonstration of light nanofocusing in a hybrid plasmonic−photonic nanotaper structure, and the building of a high optical-quality double-layer silicon (Si) material platform for integrated photonic and optoelectronic devices. These studies utilize photonic crystals and nanomaterials, which represent two of the newest components in the field of optoelectronics.

Currently, Ward and his team are focused on packaging PICs for integration into existing EW systems, to counter future threats.

“U.S. warfighters may soon face adversary systems that use signals outside the traditional EW spectrum, which creates a need for broadband frequency responses beyond the capabilities of conventional RF and digital equipment,” said Ward. “Photonic advances originating in the telecom world have given us the ability to provide EW, radar and other military systems with unique and advanced performance capabilities.”

These photonics-based technologies under development could soon complement the U.S. military's EW infrastructure, which currently consists of a number of EW systems for naval and airborne platforms, such as the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP), based on jamming and/or identifying radar and other electronic signals.