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free-space optics (FSO)

Free-space optics (FSO), also called free-space photonics (FSP), refers to the transmission of modulated visible or infrared ( IR ) beams through the atmosphere to obtain broadband communications. Most frequently, laser beams are used, although non-lasing sources such as light-emitting diodes ( LED s) or IR-emitting diodes (IREDs) will serve the purpose.

The theory of FSO is essentially the same as that for fiber optic transmission. The difference is that the energy beam is collimated and sent through clear air or space from the source to the destination, rather than guided through an optical fiber. If the energy source does not produce a sufficiently parallel beam to travel the required distance, collimation can be done with lenses. At the source, the visible or IR energy is modulated with the data to be transmitted. At the destination, the beam is intercepted by a photodetector, the data is extracted from the visible or IR beam (demodulated), and the resulting signal is amplified and sent to the hardware.

FSO systems can function over distances of several kilometers. As long as there is a clear line of sight between the source and the destination, communication is theoretically possible. Even if there is no direct line of sight, strategically positioned mirrors can be used to reflect the energy. The beams can pass through glass windows with little or no attenuation (as long as the windows are kept clean!).

Although FSO systems can be a good solution for some broadband networking needs, there are limitations. Most significant is the fact that rain, dust, snow, fog, or smog can block the transmission path and shut down the network.

This was last updated in March 2011

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