Are Lasers the Key to Cheap, Cloud-Based Internet?
Different colored lasers light up a section of cloud during a test of Inveneo’s StratoLancer system. Photo: Aaron Mason
(ED: Follow Aaron Mason; he’s a real firebrand, building communications systems in the Third World and areas of world disaster; aaronmason.me)
April 1, 2013 by Aaron Mason
When trying to communicate over great distances, things invariably get in the way. The solution so far has been to find your way up to the tallest nearby mountain and build a steel tower to hold equipment that captures information and relays it to the other side. This process can take time, and is incredibly costly.
Engineers at Inveneo, a San Francisco-based non-profit providing broadband Internet access and sustainable computing solutions around the world, have developed a novel solution to this problem: using clouds as passive relays.
“We were experimenting with using lasers to send information to the towers, when clouds kept getting in the way,” said Inveneo CTO Andris Bjornson. “When we saw the clouds lighting up with the laser light we had a real ‘eureka’ moment.”
At a very basic level the StratoLancer system works using the same principles as a rainbow. Light entering a cloud gets bounced around inside the spherical water droplets and scattered back. Thin mists generate rainbows, while thick clouds generally look white against a blue sky because they’re scattering sunlight.
An illustration of the basic principles at work in the StratoLancer system. Images: Google
The same holds true with laser light, enabling one small laser to light up an entire cloud. Ground stations with line of site to the cloud can then receive the signal and broadcast back using their own lasers. The system is cost effective and boasts a much wider range than standard point-to-point communications. And as mountains are primary cloud-forming elements, the system is proving to be extremely reliable.
“Your normal telecom tower might be as tall as 100 meters. Sitting on top of a hill that equipment might be a good thousand meters up,” said Bjornson. “These clouds are two to seven times that high. And they’re free.”
The concept isn’t new, as a 1979 Wireless Institute of Australia article points out, but the technology at the time was several decades behind the idea. Modern ICTs, however, are making this dream a reality.
Early attempts at optical cloud communications. Photo: Wireless Institute of Australia
The truly amazing statistic to consider is that StratoLancer uses the same principles as fibre optics and theoretically shares the performance capabilities.
“We’ve been able to get good, stable 100Mbs connections, but the upper limit is incredible,” said Bjornson. “We’re looking at terabits-per-second here.”
The initial pilot has been running in San Francisco since January, chosen because cloud cover over the city is nearly guaranteed. Many observers remark that the clouds look like “miniature northern lights”.
If the technology proves scalable, Inveneo plans to roll the system out nation-wide, building a new kind of cloud-based infrastructure. The Department of Defense has shown interest in the project as well, as a nationwide cloud-based communications system would still be functional if our current infrastructure fails.
“You can’t blow up a cloud,” said a Pentagon staffer who requested to remain anonymous. “We’ve tried.”
Artist’s rendition of a nation-wide cloud-based network.
The StratoLancer system is slated to roll out in several additional US cities before international deployment, with New York next on the list. As an added bit of New York flair, the laser will be modified to project the image of a bat on the clouds.
“Our next Bat Signal may not call Batman to fight crime,” said NYC Police Commissioner Aprile Ingannare. “But at least it will let me download him on Netflix.”