The U.S. Navy is going back to its roots to prevent Russian and Chinese hacking, using a new light system for ship-to-ship communication not unlike the signal lights used in maritime warfare for hundreds of years.
Light fidelity, or LiFi, promises to allow ships to communicate with one another by transmitting information with a beam of light through common LED (light emitting diode) lights. While the technology may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, it actually borrows from old Navy technologies such as the Aldis lamp, a hundred-year-old signal device that allows ships to transmit Morse code via flashing light that is still used today.
The technology’s process is fairly simple to understand: an LED light is used to create a beam that can transmit information like a radio wave. The signal is then received by another ship, which uses a device called a photodiode to receive and decode the information.
LiFi works similarly to household internet WiFi, only massively faster, more securely and with significantly greater range. Currently, the technology has been tested successfully at distances of up to one mile, but it is believed that it could easily reach 12 nautical miles after further research. A secure, direct information stream is ideal for naval ships traveling together, like aircraft carrier groups. LiFi technology can even be used underwater by submarines. The only way the stream of information could be intercepted is if an enemy vessel were to get between the ships and capture the light beam.
LiFi will prove most useful in theaters where the U.S. Navy is under threat from adversaries with advanced anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) and offensive cyber security capabilities, particularly Russia and China. With China’s increased aggression in the South China Sea and Russia’s recent provocations against U.S. ships, the technology comes at a time when U.S. Navy patrol vessels could use it the most.
The U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) is already working on a project called Tactical Line-of-Sight Optical Network (TALON), that harnesses LiFi for ship-to-ship and even ship-to-shore communication. TALON is scheduled to be deployed in the next five years as a way to share top secret intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data. Simpler versions of LiFi could be deployed for basic communication immediately.
“Ship-to-ship LiFi could provide a cheap, secure, and, reliable technology for ships in formation,” said Terence Bennett, a former U.S. Navy officer with expertise in Naval hardware, in an article for the Center for International Maritime Security Wednesday. “Commanders can build this redundant capability using a ship’s 2M shop (onboard Electronics Technicians), who can build and repair these systems with off-the-shelf components and software.”
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