US Will Try Using Lasers to Send Data From Space to Drones

An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flightline at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. Stocktrek Images via Getty

By Patrick Tucker,
Published by Defense One, 17 June 2021

In the first experiment of its kind, military researchers will attempt to link drones to satellites via light.

Early next year, the U.S. military’s Space Development Agency will test whether low-earth orbit satellites can communicate with an MQ-9 Reaper drone via optical links, or lasers. 

If the experiment is successful, it will pave the way for a new, less hackable means of communication between drones, jets, and other weapons and commanders and operators from afar. 

“In just a few short days, we’ll be launching several satellites. Two of those are [MQ-9 maker] General Atomics satellites to be able to do the laser conductivity in space,” Derek Tournear, the head of the Space Development Agency, told Defense One during a taping of a segment to air next week during the Defense One Tech Summit. “Then those satellites will also be able to do the laser conductivity down directly to an MQ-9 platform.” 

Satellite communication to drones, ships, and other assets via radio frequency is decades old. It served the military well in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States did not face adversaries with complex air defenses or the ability to jam radio signals on drones. 

But as the military preps for a potential contest against much more high-tech adversaries, radio signals from space present a vulnerability. 

“With [radio frequency] you can jam that… if you can just put out a lot of power on the ground and overpower the receiver,” Tournear said. “With optics, with light, it’s completely different because…essentially you have a very narrow band…So if you want to jam that signal you actually have to get a light laser that shines directly down into that telescope, so that’s extremely difficult to do. It’s not technically feasible to be able to do that over a wide area. So that’s a big advantage.”

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