As warfare becomes more digitised, space-to-ground laser communications will help to provide militaries with critical data much faster and more securely than conventional radio communications.

In an exclusive with Airforce Technology, Laurynas Mačiulis – the co-founder and CEO of a Lithuanian laser tech startup called Astrolight, which aims to “bridge the connectivity gap” in space-to-earth communications – discussed the benefits of this dual use technology, its challenges, and how private companies are driving military innovation as geopolitical tensions intensify.

“Now, what do we mean by the connectivity gap? We mean that, given the tremendous amount of value intrinsic in satellite data, we still lack the infrastructure and technology that would allow us to seamlessly get that data from space,” Mačiulis examined.

Currently, we send data down to Earth through radio communications. However, this is an enduring method for dealing with the real-time data deluge required by militaries.

“So we all use fibre optical internet, that allows us to exchange tremendous amounts of data very easily. We don’t have that with satellites yet, the satellites are still using radio communication, which is quite old technology. It does not allow us to reach a high bandwidth because of the limited spectrum of radio communications,” Mačiulis explained.

GlobalData Aerospace and Defence Analyst, James Marques, noted that laser comms provide a considerable edge. “Space laser comms have the two benefits of being able to transmit more data faster and being difficult to intercept. This is something the US is heavily pursuing and as warfare becomes more digitised and networked it will likely grow in use.

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“But there are environmental factors such as weather that will still disrupt laser comms – so keep in mind most militaries will likely retain other forms of communication for redundancy. The tech is already maturing well for use as communication between satellites in space but will take a little longer to develop reliably for space-to-ground.”

The advantages of laser comms

Astrolight maintain that the greater precision of lasers solves a range of problems we have in this sector, including transmission speed and security resilience.

“Lasers have the capability to focus the electromagnetic beam at a very, very narrow angle and this is possible due to the very short wavelength compared to radio communications.

“So, that means you can really make sure that the information that travels through free space is received only by the party that you want it to be received, and that nobody can actually intercept the signal because, you know, to intercept or jam the signal, the party needs to actually be within that narrow beam.”

Bringing simple infrastructure and cost-efficiency

“The problem with space optical communication in particular is that although the optical telecom technology is already quite old and really, really advanced on earth, when you go to space, and when that optical signal gets out of the fibre, you have to make sure that you are able to control it very precisely, and to point it to the right direction, [with] very high accuracy,” Mačiulis stated.

This is where the biggest problems occur because it is not so trivial to make such a technology at a small volume and in a cost-efficient manner.

“In terms of price and their complexity, they still cannot compete with radio comms. And this is basically what Astrolight wants to change. We want to deliver a product that uses predominantly commercial off-the-shelf components, making it quite cheap, but engineered in a clever way so that we protect those components from the challenging space conditions and make them work reliably. That’s the goal.”

Private sector startups are driving military innovation

The Nato summit in Vilnius last month added more pressure to armed forces to step up their efforts in defence – more spending, weapon systems and crucially, munitions.

The host of the Nato summit is just one of many countries that are limited in their contributions to the military alliance, their small economies do not have the capacity to meet the new demands of defence alone. Only recently have Lithuania expressed intent to acquire main battle tanks for the first time. The Baltic nation selected the Leopard 2 largely because of its interoperability and support of the spares, equipment and maintenance of provided by many of its western European neighbours that operate the Leopard.

That being said, countries such as Lithuania have the capacity to provide support to Nato, other than with tanks, guns and bullets.

The problem with countries that don’t have a very established military industry – like Lithuania and the Baltic countries that are still trying to stimulate this industry – it’s very important to support the startups,” Mačiulis identified.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) has similarly identified the innovation coming out of new startups. In fact, in April this year, the US Government Accountability Office opined the need for the DoD to level the playing field for SMEs to participate in its defence procurement process.

Already, the DoD’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has entered the laser comms sector. Marquess explained that “a good example would be DARPA’s ‘BACN’ project, using laser comms to connect satellites in orbit with one another, but mostly large firms like SpaceX were selected. Northrop Grumman did pick a relatively small firm for their own project (SDA) last year.

“As activity in space in general increases, however, I think more startups may appear, but the military benefit of this tech means most of the large players are keen to stay at the forward edge of development.”

The Space-BACN program aims to revolutionize the way space-based communications work by developing low-cost, high-speed reconfigurable optical datalinks to connect various low-earth orbit (LEO) constellations. Credit: DARPA.

“It’s very important to stimulate the tech industry, because the technologies are really accelerating,” Mačiulis said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily our disadvantage that the defence industry is less mature [in the Baltic]. It might even be an advantage because we see that military warfare technology is really changing with what we witnessed in the war in Ukraine, with drones, with more and more commercial infrastructure and technology that is being used for war, all these social networks and so on.

“So I think we have a chance to disrupt this market, and it’s important to have support from venture capital [and] from business angels to support these initiatives.”