19 Jan 2016

Photonics: From the laser to "radar sight"

According to experts, Russia has everything it needs to become the world leader in the field of photonics. To achieve this, it is necessary to increase state support and attract major investors in the sector. Then, the experiments conducted in laboratories will turn into developments, developments into technology, and technology into real production.

In place of optics and electronics

Photonics is the science of generating, managing, and detecting photons (elementary particles and electromagnetic radiation quanta that can exist in a vacuum but move at the speed of light), as well as the physics and technology related to the use of photons.

In other words, photonics deals with the control and conversion of optical signals, from transmitting information through optical fibers to creating new sensors that modulate light signals. Some sources say that the terms "optics" and "electronics" will gradually be replaced by the generalized name of "photonics".

Photons, unlike electrons, have neither mass nor charge. Therefore, photonic systems are not affected by external electromagnetic fields and have a much greater transmission distance and signal bandwidth.

The first important technical device using photons was the laser, invented in 1960. After the fiber-optic transmissions began to be widely used worldwide in the 1980s, the term “photonics” became more common. Through the end of the twentieth century, photonics was largely focused on telecommunications. In particular, it became the basis for the development of the Internet.

Currently, radio-photonics have started to replace "telecommunications" photonics. This new direction has emerged at the intersection of radionics, wave optics, microwave optoelectronics, and other branches of science and industry. Radio-photonics are used in the transmission of information using electromagnetic waves of microwave and photonic devices and systems that can create radio-frequency devices with parameters unattainable with conventional electronics.

Achievements and prospects for domestic photonics

The Russian school of photonics is considered one of the best in the world. Suffice it to recall the Nobel Prize in Physics awarded in 1964 to Alexander Prokhorov and Nikolai Basov for research leading to the creation of the laser and again in 2000 to Zhores Alferov for the development of optoelectronics.

Having yielded leadership in the field of microelectronics to western countries, Russia plans to beat the competition in another area, namely radio-photonics and defense technologies based on it. Domestic scientists believe that it is possible to completely give up electrons in favor of photons.

Because photons have no mass and fly faster, the size of devices operating on the principles of photonics can be hundreds of times smaller than the usual modern servers. At the same time, data speed is ten times higher.

For example, today a ground-based radar station requires a multi-story building. A radar system using the principles of radio-photonics can be installed on a vehicle such as a KAMAZ truck. If you combine several of these mobile systems in one network, their power and efficiency will be unprecedented. In doing so, the network will have a unique resistance to electromagnetic pulses from solar magnetic storms or nearby lightning strikes.

As a result, the level of resolution, speed, and efficiency of the broadband radar will become so high that it is quite possible to call it "radar vision".

The use of such systems is planned not only in the defense industries, but also in the civil sphere. For example, in transportation, as they can instantly detect obstacles in the way of high-speed trains. And there are even applications in housing and communal services, as photons can replace the hot water in urban heating systems (energy propagating through photonic crystal fiber is converted into heat with nearly 100% efficiency).

Currently, about 850 companies in Russia are working on photonics. Most of them are concentrated in the Moscow region, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, and the Volga region. One of the largest manufacturers in this field is KRET.

Today, KRET along with the Foundation for Advanced Studies (FAS), have together created a radio-photonics element base for radio astronomy, radar, and other areas. The organizations signed a corresponding agreement in early 2015. The "Development of an active phased array based on radio-photonics" project will draw on research from KRET enterprises and focus on the development of universal technology that will form the basis for next-generation radar and electronic warfare systems.

Hundreds of millions of rubles have been allocated from the state budget for the creation of a special laboratory that will undertake exploratory research projects and test experimental samples of radio-photonics element base and a wide range of devices based on it. It is expected that the study will take 4.5 years.

In addition, experts of KRET are now working on extending the scope of devices and systems based on radio-photonics for radio astronomy, radar, radio communications over optical fiber, and mobile communications.

"Radio-photonics is a promising scientific field that in the future will determine the development of dual-use technologies throughout the entire world,” said Nikolai Kolesov, CEO of KRET. “For Russia, this is a huge scientific and technological breakthrough that will facilitate the transition to the sixth technological generation."

By 2020, with the help of the latest technologies, KRET plans to create effective and advanced two-way radio, radar, and other radio-frequency systems that will replace those currently in existence. For example, the use of systems of radio-optical phased array antennas in the long term will enable the construction of a network of unique, synchronized space and ground radio-telescopes and will also be used to cover the fuselage of aircraft and helicopters with a new kind of “smart” skin.

Radars based on radio-optical phased array antennas will be installed on Russia’s fifth-generation PAK FA fighter and a number of other manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as naval platforms such as radar stations of ships and submarines.

Radio-optical phased array antenna systems will reduce the weight and size of electronic equipment by 5-7 times. Moreover, these modern antennas will also serve as a future radar.

Thanks to radio-optical phased array antennas, the resolving power of communications systems and radar will increase tenfold. If modern radar has a radar radiation frequency of 10 GHz, with a 3 cm wide range of 1-2 GHz, then the radio-optical phased array antennas will be able to simultaneously operate at this frequency at a range from 1 Hz to 100 GHz.

In other words, radio-optical phased array antennas will be capable of carrying out a kind of "X-ray vision" of planes located at a distance of over 500 kilometers, producing a detailed, three-dimensional image. Moreover, since the signal is able to penetrate any obstacle, including a lead wall a meter thick, this technology can look inside a target to find out what equipment it carries, determine how many people are there, and even see their faces.