To Send a Message to a Submarine, Fire Up the Laser Beams

By Eliza Strickland | September 8, 2009 1:11 pm

laser communicationIn future military operations, aircraft and submarines may be able to stay in contact by firing up the laser comm. Researchers have devised a new way to communicate with submarines by using high-energy laser beams to create bubbles of steam in the water, which then pop in little explosions that generate a 220-decibel pulse of sound. By controlling the frequency of explosions, researchers could make a kind of underwater Morse code.

According to a press release from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, one of the peculiar effects of high-intensity laser beams is that they can actually focus themselves when passing through some materials, like water. As the laser focuses, it rips electrons off water molecules, which then become superheated and create a powerful “pop”. Because different colours of light travel at markedly different speeds underwater, the precise location where different colours focus together could be manipulated by the suitable design of a many-coloured input pulse [BBC News].

Researchers also noted that the laser beam could travel “many hundreds of meters through air” before generating its acoustic effects in the water. This would allow a aircraft high above the sea to fire a laser downwards, generating sound pulses which could be received by underwater telephone gear aboard a submerged submarine [The Register]. This could be of great use to the navy, since submarines currently have to surface for most forms of communication, leaving them more vulnerable to detection and attack.

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Image: Naval Research Laboratory

  • Jacob

    This sounds really awesome but I have to wonder if there is not a more cost effective way to communicate with submarines. Still the cool factor is enough that I don’t really care how much it costs.

  • Shaking head

    Will these large pulses of sound and bubbles have a negative effect on sea creatures? I know that a specific type of shrimp called a pistol shrimp uses similar techniques to stun and kill prey… They don’t use lasers though lol… Instead they lock their claws back then release them causing a bubble to form which creates an underwater shockwave that kills the prey.. Look up pistol shrimp on YouTube

  • robot makes music

    To heck with that, can’t this communication be intercepted? Anyone in the ocean should be able to hear it, unless it’s an underwater sasar.

  • Andy

    Of course it can be intercepted, as can most current forms of communication. That’s why there are codes and encryption.

    If the laser can’t be deployed on a satellite then I fail to see the utility. If you have to send a plane out to the general area a submarine is operating in order to communicate with it, then that pretty much eliminates messages that are time sensitive. Still, cool tech.

  • Shaking head

    I hate that people only care about it because it would benifit humans… What about other creatures… This is exactly the type of behaviour that puts species on the endangered list and that will ultimatly be the end of us all… Small things have large effects on their environment.. For instance look at the problem with bees at the moment. They are in colony collaspse disorder worldwide right now. This means that there are less bees to pollinate the food that you eat. And the food that cows, chickens, pigs eat which we in turn eat as our food.

  • Joseph

    Not only will others be able to hear it, they’ll also be able to see it. Both are a dead giveaway to the location of a sub in the area. This then raises the logical question: since the transmission/laser light is giving away the presence of a sub in a general area, what’s the big deal about surfacing? BTW< the information given in the article is probably wrong. I don't know about "most subs", but current U.S. subs like the 688(I) Los-Angeles class and the Seawolf, as well as the Russian Akula, can go to approximately periscope depth and stream a long trailing wire to function as a radio antenna. Actually, none of those subs need to surface for radio communication at all: they have radio masts that are raised above the surface of the water. So as a general communications medium, this laser technique is somewhat pointless. The only use might involve real-time location updates of allied forces during a naval operation when the sub is actively engaged in deep sea warfare and unable to come close to periscope depth.

  • http://link Kelvin98

    What are they going to do next: deny you a bank loan? ,

  • Pistol Shrimp Fan

    To Response no.2, i’d wager that the cavitation bubble created by the pistol shrimp when it takes a shot is nothing like shooting a laser through water.


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