While we typically associate fibre optics with telecommunications and high-speed networks, the technology is being used for all sorts of applications, from drones to brilliantly lit clothing that could charge your smartphone.
Science & Technology
Fibre optic cables send digital information across the planet — indeed, there are massive cables under the sea that keep us connected. Since these cables transmit light, they’re not affected by water (seeing as electricity and water are a bad combination).
But the ability of fibre optics to transmit large amounts of data over long distances is also useful in the air, including unmanned aerial vehicles and drones. To be more specific about this high-in-the-sky usage, Shane Weaver explains it further in a post on CableOrganizer.com:
“Yup, drones. A fairly new and fast-growing application for fiber optics is Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). With the ability to provide a fast and efficient way to transmit a large amount of data over long distances, fib[er] is utilized as the main communication conduit between the UAV and ground control. Or more specifically, between ground control and the antenna that controls the UAV, if you were wondering why there weren't any cables trailing behind drones in all the photos and videos you've seen.”
And this opens up new possibilities to scientists and researchers. Oregon State University, for example, is using fibre optic cables suspended from unmanned aircraft to measure atmospheric temperatures in the boundary layer (the lowest part of the Earth’s atmosphere), which was previously not possible. This research is expected to help us understand how clouds and rainstorms develop, how air pollution gets diluted and how pollen moves across the landscape.
Optical fibres are extremely thin and flexible, so they’re also ideal for medical applications. Since they can be inserted into blood vessels, they can be used for minimally invasive exploratory or surgical procedures. Other uses, being explored by organizations such as the Canadian Healthcare Association (CHA) and the Association of Canadian Academic Healthcare Organizations (ACAHO), include using high-intensity light for treatment of cancer and ophthalmic diseases as well as temperature-controlled laser systems based on infrared fibre for tissue bonding.
On the lighter side, a company from France makes luminous fabric for fashion and décor based on fibre optic fabric technology. So now you can glow from head to toe at your next dinner party. Lumigram is also using the fabric to create unique items for weddings, special events and marketing promotions.
But fibre optic fabric holds much more potential than flashy fashion accessories. A Canadian lab is weaving optical fibres into a fabric to create smart clothing and wearable gadgets. Physicists at Ecole Polytechnique de Montréal are looking to create fabric that can charge itself, store energy and perform other useful functions. Not only could you charge your smartphone, this fabric could monitor your health or act as a wearable computer.
The U.S. military is also interested in fibre optic fabric, but not for fun or fashion. The idea is to provide a wearable power source for soldiers (since “silicon-doped” fibre-optic threads mimic conventional solar cells). This bendable solar-cell fibre has plenty of medical uses, too, since it can be used to recharge bionic implants and other biomedical devices, according to Sebastian Anthony in a post on ExtremeTech.
The idea of using fibre optics for solar energy extends beyond military and medical applications. It can even be used to harness the sunshine and bring natural light indoors. A Swedish company, Parans, has developed fibre optic solar lighting. This technology collects sunlight, transports it through optical cables to lighting fixtures and disperses natural light indoors. The company claims natural light boosts productivity and is environmentally friendly. How amazing would this be for all those dimly lit offices without windows or natural light?
While researchers are working on even faster fibre-optic networks — which could make fast Internet even faster — they’re also working on new uses for fibre optics that could innovate our lives. Cables just got a whole lot more interesting.
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