Chinese scientists take a step closer to 6G with optical switch

To address demands, networks need to become three-dimensional in the future

By Ameya Paleja,
Published by Interesting Engineering, 16 October 2023

Scientists at the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences have successfully tested optical switching in space for the first time, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported. Optical switching is passing on light signals from one location to another without converting them into electrical signals, a necessary step in contemporary technology.

Switching is a crucial process in communication networks that ensures the information is sent only to the intended recipient. Whether making a phone call using a cell phone tower or beaming content at high speeds over a broadband connection, the switching ensures that the correct data is routed to you.

Contemporary technology carries out switching by converting the light signals into electrical ones, routing them, and then converting them back into light signals as they travel through the fiber optic network. The team at Xian has found a way to bypass this entirely and carry out switches using a device that functions much like a mirror.

Tested on a satellite

The equipment, referred to by the team as “spaceborne optical switching technology,” was sent to space earlier in August this year aboard a Y7 carrier rocket, the Chinese Academy of Sciences clarified in a statement last week. This is the first time such a device was tested on a satellite.

The device passed the light signals from one location to another without the need for conversion to electrical signals. The equipment was brought back to Earth and examined to find that image information was intact and no data was lost during the transmission, the SCMP report added.

Previous studies about the device have reported a switching capacity of 40 gigabits per second (Gbps), much larger than contemporary tech. However, the team associated with the project did not comment on their achievements, so whether this capability was replicated in space remains unclear.

Optical switching could make such equipment a thing of the past Jeremy Poland/ iStock

Overcoming the bottleneck

Developments in technological areas such as supercomputing and 6G mobile communication have meant that information transmission systems must be able to carry large amounts of data.

The photon-electron-photon switching method is soon expected to become a bottleneck in network communications. Scientists are keen to use an optical approach to deliver high capacities and costs of switching facilities.

As customers look to operate in various parts of the globe, communication networks are also moving from terrestrial to three-dimensional ones, with satellite constellations covering hard-to-reach corners of the world.

Recently, Interesting Engineering reported how Elon Musk’s SpaceX was using lasers to communicate between orbiting satellites instead of radio waves. This approach allows for the transmission of large swathes of data between satellites as the company also looks to provide 4G communication abilities directly to phones.

The research conducted by the Chinese scientists, although preliminary, could pave the way for 6G communications in the future. Currently, China’s satellite internet technology relies on American components and materials, but over time, these shortcomings can be expected to be overcome.

In the meantime, the scientists at the Xian Institute will be working to further improve their technology through extensive testing and validation.

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