For over a hundred years, navies around the world have messaged each other at the speed of light – signal lamp light.
Communicating using Morse code and lamps has been outpaced by modern radio and satellite transmissions, although every US Navy ship still carries one of these lights. The problem, however, is that no one is very good at using Morse code these days, so the US Navy has turned to a technological fix.
The snappily titled Flashing Light to Text Converter was developed in association with the Office of Naval Research and is a retrofit to existing signaling lamps. Rather than requiring a human Morse code specialist, the lamp is linked to a tablet and messages can be typed in, then motorized shutters on the lamp send out the signal. A GoPro camera on the top of the unit picks up incoming messages, and the fondleslab's software decodes them.
“The best part of this flashing light converter is how easy it is for sailors to use,” said Scott Lowery, an engineer at Naval Surface Warfare Center. “It’s very intuitive because it mirrors the messaging systems used on iPhones. You just type your message and send it with the push of a button.”
The new system does have a number of advantages over traditional human-only Morse signaling. Even the most skilled operator can seldom reach speeds of more than a dozen words per minute between ships, whereas the computer could drastically increase this rate – assuming the receiving ship has the technology to read the message.
On the other hand, human operators, compared to a computer and camera, don't emit electronic noise, and can continue to work amid an emergency systems crash or after an electromagnetic pulse event.
The other advantage, for the Navy, is that it doesn't have to make sure it has Morse code operators trained up and ready. That saves time and money – but also raises some interesting questions as to whether the Navy should be abandoning low-tech backup solutions.
In 1998, the US Navy stopped insisting that its officers know how to use a sextant to determine the ship's position on the planet, because GPS was so prevalent. In 2015 sextant use came back on the curriculum over fears that ships would be left in the lurch if the GPS went down for any reason. ®