FPGA-Based Processor Turns Existing Optical Fibers Into Handy Environmental Monitoring Sensors

With an FPGA sensor module, existing fiber optic communications lines can pull double duty as environmental monitoring sensors.

Gareth Halfacree
15 days agoSensors / FPGAs / Communication

A team of researchers, led by Nokia Bell Labs, has demonstrated how a simple optical fiber can be turned into a functional sensor — monitoring both the health of communications infrastructure and the wider environment.

“Optical fibers are everywhere, and if we can expand the use of this infrastructure to create a dense worldwide spanning mesh of environmental sensors, these communication systems can play an even bigger role in our daily life," explains Mikael Mazur of his team's work. "Sensing transceivers can prevent service interruption and improve our understanding of the environment by significantly scaling the number of sensors without the cost of a dedicated sensing system. Most importantly, this can be done without any loss in data throughput, enabling full use of the communication system for its intended purpose."

To prove the concept, the team created a coherent transceiver sensing prototype, powered by a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) acting as a digital signal processor (DSP). Connecting this to 524km (around 326 miles) of optical fiber, strung in the air between poles, the team measured time-of-flight along the fiber for 70 hours — and discovered that they were able to detect changes in temperature and wind conditions along its length, while also spotting if any of the poles were beginning to lean or sway.

"We are just scratching the surface of potential applications and will continues to perform field trials over various networks in different environments," Mazur promises. "Our goal is to better understand how this sensor can be used in future smart cities to improve the resilience of both communication systems and infrastructure, while getting a better understanding of the environment around us. We are also actively looking at algorithms for real-time analytics and autonomous decision-making based on transceiver sensing data, enabling early-warning applications."

The team's work is to be presented at the 2023 Optical Fiber Communication Conference (OFC), 5-9 March 2023 in San Diego.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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