"It's inherently secure," said Terry Tidwell, chief engineer at Space Photonics, which recently signed a deal with Schott North America to commercialize its technology and sell it to the Department of Defense.
Along with its security, laser communications also pack a lot of information into that narrow beam. Whereas Wi-Fi signals carry megabits every second, an infrared laser beam can carry thousands of times as much data.
Several companies besides Space Photonics are building laser communications for the military. Among them is ITT Exelis, which got a $7 million contract to finish developing a ship-to-shore system for the Navy, said Gary Tarantino, director of advanced systems and innovation for the company. "We're trying to lock in the design," he said. "To optimize the automation and the corrections for atmospheric interference." By the end of next year, he said, there should be systems in place. It should have a range of some 12 miles, if one station is elevated.
Although air-based laser communications were first proposed in the 1970s, using them was expensive. Fiber optic cable, which started to come into wide use at about the same time, was a cheaper option and had a much longer range. Fiber optics can be as long as the cable, but air-based laser beams have a limit – typically a few miles, though that can be extended to up to 120 miles if transmitted between aircraft at high altitude.