Fiber Takes Flight: Fiber Optics in Aeronautics

The science flight isn’t simple. There are forces involved such as drag, gravity, thrust, and lift. The instrumentation behind even the simplest commercial flight is complicated, taking in staggering amounts of data to analyze. Everything from environmental conditions to navigation must be processed in real-time, to give either the onboard computer system or the pilot the necessary opportunity to adjust to the situation.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that onboard systems require some of the best tech available to keep up. In an industry where all sorts of data must be processed quickly, there is a great need for high-speed, reliable transmissions within the airplane itself. It is believed that fiber optic cable is going to be the core of that internal network going forward.

The Needs of Modern Flying

Modern commercial flights run on data. Electric and electronic systems are slowly replacing more and more of the mechanical controls of a plane. Computers built into the system have evolved, now handling signals and processes that would not have been possible just a decade ago. The amount of control loaded into the computer aboard a plane is staggering, along with inputs from radar, actuators, sensors, and more.

This is before we get into things like the systems that control passenger amenities. In-flight movies are sent through data streams like any other information, for instance. Planes that provide high-speed, reliable internet connections are another example. Barely anything happens on a plane without the internal network having its fingers in the pie.

Size, Weight, and Power Consumption

In any aircraft, there are four things to consider. Size is one of them, and weight is tied to that. Both of these factors will also affect the power consumption of the aircraft, affecting how efficiently it burns fuel and thus how much it costs to operate the flight. Fuel efficiency is of paramount importance.

Harsh Environments

At the same time, when you’re flying, there are tremendous conditions at play as you fly. There are environmental hazards. Vibration is also a likely issue, perhaps even worse than what one might find on the factory floor. The end result is that not only must the equipment be lighter and more compact, but also able to “survive” the conditions they will see.

The Need for Lighter Components

One of the things that aviation obsesses over is the need to pack as much power as they can into a smaller form. This helps conserve weight on the flight, reducing fuel costs and making it easier to get into the air. However, this does nothing to negate the high need for powerful processing and the speed needed to get the information from the sensors to the cockpit.

This combination of a need for speed and a need to keep things light could benefit from the use of optical fibers. These provide the high bandwidth needed to transmit gigabytes of data. The use of light in the glass also means the transmission speeds are much faster. Finally, the average fiber optic cable is much more lightweight than their copper counterparts. However, at present, Ethernet still rules the skies, even if things may change.

Advantages of Fiber Optics

The simple fact is that fiber optics have a number of advantages over the copper technology used today. The first is that they are much smaller and weigh less. Specific comparisons depend on the cables themselves, but the “baseline” specifications of a fiber cable are 25% smaller than a comparable shielded Cat-5e cable.

Shielded Ethernet against baseline optical fiber is important because of the second advantage of the latter. Electromagnetic interference is a persistent, constant issue on an aircraft. This is a problem for copper cables, which require shielding to protect against it, driving up the weight. On the other hand, fiber optics have an innate immunity to that sort of noise without any shielding.

Another advantage of fiber optics would be that they can transmit over longer distances without support infrastructure. The distances required to travel aren’t particularly long on an aircraft. However, fiber optics remain stable over long distances so there is less of a need for support systems onboard. The reduced need means that there is again less weight to take into the air.

Fiber can also deliver high-impact, high-definition entertainment options through the passenger cabin. Entertainment for longer flights can gain a great deal from fiber optics because of the greater bandwidth available. This allows for eliminating things like zone boxes and intermediate switches, which can add to costs. The support structure of this nature is reduced through fiber cables.

This also includes giving the passengers in the cabin the ability to access the internet with more stability and speed. This can be a huge difference maker.


For the time being, ethernet cables are the standard for flights. However, as the need for better fuel economy, higher transmission speeds, and improved resistance against interference increases, fiber optic cable becomes more and more intriguing. Many believe it is only a matter of time before aircraft are fitted with them and optical fiber takes to the skies.



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