NU Prof. Awarded Air Force Grant for Terahertz Comms Research
ECE Associate Professor Josep Jornet was recently awarded an Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) grant for his work with Terahertz (THz) communications. Jornet’s work, “Protocol Stack Design for Frequency-agile Ultra-broadband Airborne Networks in the THz Band,” aims to design, analyze, and experimentally demonstrate new THz communication protocols for airborne networks.
The THz frequency is higher than more commonly known frequencies, such as radiowaves and microwaves, Jornet explained. While there have been concerns over potential health problems related to THz, he stressed these are mostly unfounded and that there is no need to be afraid of THz waves, at least in its current form.
“There is not a risk with THz radiation,” he said. “After THz, you have infrared, which is at an even higher frequency. No one is afraid of the infrared signal in their TV remote control, for example. Nevertheless, as with any radiation, if very high power were available (not anytime soon) side effects would have to be studied.”
The AFRL grant will specifically focus on how THz communications can be securely utilized in airborne networks. A key challenge with THz frequencies is that they have difficulty going through obstacles, such as with computers, furniture, or even plants in an office building, Jornet said. But if planes were to utilize THz frequencies, obstacles are less of an issue.
“We have THz radios, and know-how THz signals propagate,” he explained. “We want to improve the design of how airplanes, drones, etc., communicate with each other using these THz signals.
“They can communicate fast, which means that synchronization becomes a challenge. For example, if two people are talking fast, one might not be able to understand the other. Being able to quickly communicate, but without proper synchronization is a problem. How can we make airplanes talk fast while they are also flying at high speeds?”
There is also a potential security benefit with THz communications, Jornet said. If those two people are talking quickly, another individual outside of the conversation could have difficulty overhearing the chatter.
“One thing that hinders THz is water vapor, or humidity,” he said. “When you go higher up in the air, the humidity goes down. So, THz signals work well at 30,000 feet. People on the ground will have a hard time listening to those signals.”
For the research, Jornet said his team will first work to define the language that planes are going to use. Once that “language” has been determined, can the same language be used on any other frequency?
“Then we need to define the time at which these planes will talk to each other,” he explained. “When two people can clearly communicate [in the same language], it’s because there is a back and forth. With planes, we need to determine what language they speak, how they speak, and when they speak.”
This phase of the research will focus on in-lab testing, Jornet concluded.
“We can do all of the work for this part of the project on the ground,” he said. “If we’re successful, then there can be a possible follow up project, which would include putting [the communication capabilities] on a plane and do real testing up in the air.”