Caren B. Les, email@example.com
LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. – The total market for fiber optics in military and commercial
aircraft, estimated at $306 million in 2009, is expected to reach $703 million in
2013, according to a report from Information Gatekeepers Inc. (IGI) of Boston. Titled
Market for Fiber Optics in Military and Aerospace Avionic Systems, the document
covers fighter and transport aircraft as well as unmanned aircraft systems.
One of the reasons for the now greater acceptance of fiber optic
components, systems and subsystems in the two markets is that the technology has
met with overall approval in the telecommunications field, the company said. The
natural characteristics of fiber optics may also meet the continuing need on aircraft
for more bandwidth and for wiring infrastructure with smaller size, lower weight
and lower power consumption.
Unmanned aircraft systems such as the ScanEagle, shown in maritime
launch, are a fast-growing military market for fiber optics. Courtesy of Insitu
Inc. of Bingen, Wash.
Fiber optic cable has many advantages over copper cable, according
to the Web site of Timbercon Inc., a manufacturer of fiber optic products. It transmits
data over long distances much faster than copper does, and it has a smaller diameter
and weighs less. Fiber optics are immune to radio frequency and electromagnetic
interference, which makes them suitable for applications where proximity to electronic
devices can cause these disruptions.
“Fiber optic cable uses less power and provides security
and large bandwidth for data and video, according to John Lee, vice president of
sales and marketing at Timbercon. It can be used on unmanned aircraft systems as
well as on the ground for supporting the transfer of large amounts of data in the
form of video images, he added.
Unmanned aircraft systems
Unmanned aircraft systems are perhaps the fastest-growing military
market for fiber optics, according to IGI. The US military unmanned aircraft systems
market is projected to generate $62 billion over the period from 2010 to 2015 with
a compound annual growth rate of 10 percent, according to a report from Market Research
Media of San Francisco.
“Fly-by-light [flight control based on a fiber optic infrastructure]
has been discussed for years but will become a reality primarily due to the experience
with unmanned aircraft systems. As commercial communication/network systems move
to totally fiber-based systems, the military will have to move to these systems,
and copper will be a thing of the past,” Lee said. “Multifiber and mechanical
transfer pull-off connector technology has been used on major fighter systems and
will become the norm rather than circular low-density “military” connectors
such as 38999 or 28876. The cost is less and the weight lower, and the density is
significantly higher,” he added.
An equally large market for fiber optics is developing in large
commercial aircraft, regional and private jets, helicopters and a variety of small
aircraft, IGI reports. The complete infrastructure of installation, maintenance
and retrofits has yet to be developed by the major carriers for fiber optics, the
company indicated. It noted that, while many commercial aircraft needs can be met
through military technology, requirements such as in-flight entertainment systems
and “electronic flight bags” containing manuals and other applications
for pilots, will have to be developed at a much lower cost than for military and
Specific military and aerospace requirements present barriers
to using fiber optics, however. Among them are the lack of commercial off-the-shelf
components; hardened components for harsh environments; test and maintenance procedures;
and low-cost, easy-to-use test and measurement equipment. Continued research is
needed as well – in integrated optical components, manufacturing technology
and the establishment of standards.
The market for fiber optic test and measurement equipment for
avionic systems is still in development, according to IGI. The equipment developed
for the telecommunications field, mostly single-mode, is being used in the military
and aerospace sectors, where the majority of systems are multimode – with
mixed results, the company noted.
“The most significant issues for fiber optics in military
avionics involve training and cleaning: The warfighter is just not well-trained
to use fiber optic cables as opposed to copper cables, and the importance of cleaning
has not been impressed on those that have to use the cables,” said Lee, of
Timbercon. He added, “As with all products, quality and lead time are some
of the most important issues for ‘war-fighter’ applications. In harsh
environment applications, the issue of high temperature, radiation hardening and
exposure to ‘heavy’ vehicles can be critical design considerations.”
Applications and developments
“Some of the most important applications for fiber optics
in avionics are sensing, remote communications, the connection of various information
systems and IR countermeasure devices for protecting aircraft from IR homing missiles.
Fiber optics are used in avionic platforms, ground-based communications and shipboard
systems,” Lee said. He cited as a common example, in defense, the transfer
of large amounts of data or video from an unmanned aircraft system to a satellite
dish antenna and then, via fiber cable, 150 m farther to a command vehicle or tent
to protect personnel from hostile fire – since there are weapons that can
“home in” on the dish receiving the signal.
Lee noted that the field’s developing technology includes
IR countermeasure devices, radiation-hardened fibers, high-density environmentally
secure packages, Bragg grating sensors for a wide variety of applications, and connectors
less susceptible to contamination. He added that technological advances that would
be highly desirable for applications in avionics include bend-insensitive fiber,
increased-bandwidth fibers (10 Gb and even 100 Gb), connector compatibility across
various military requirements, high-power laser beam delivery, high-density interconnections
and acceptance of commercial off-the-shelf components for reduction in costs where
government “qualified parts list” certification may not be necessary.
“The military fiber optics industry is generally controlled
by a very few connector manufacturers that often attempt to fit every application
into their proprietary connector technology rather than use the appropriate technology
for any given application. They control the access and delivery time to their technology
so that they can maintain profits and market share. The military is starting to
require competitive bidding and the opening of ‘proprietary’ designs
to second-source small- to medium-size companies to keep costs down and to reduce
lead times. The use of commercially available technology will reduce costs to programs
since the volume usage is small in most military applications as opposed to the
storage, network and telecommunications industries,” Lee said.