Lockheed Martin taps silicon photonics tech to build better weapons of war

Let the battle against latency begin

Military contractor Lockheed Martin this week announced plans to integrate Ayar Lab’s optical input tech into future defense platforms.

Founded in 2015, the California-based Ayar Labs specializes in developing high-bandwidth interfaces which trade copper traces for low-bandwidth optical transmission. Lockheed Martin’s relationship with the silicon photonics startup dates back to early 2020, when the military contractor announced a “strategic investment” in the firm to further the development of what is now the company’s TeraPHY chiplet.

Lockheed Martin, which has a long history of developing military hardware, including the infamous SR-71 Blackbird, says Ayar Lab’s chiplet tech could eventually find its way into multiple Department of Defense systems to capture, digitalize, transport, and process spectral information at lower latency and across longer distances compared to existing electrical interconnects.

Lockheed Martin didn’t elaborate on the specific use cases for the tech, it did note military sensing applications and radio frequency processing. Previous announcements have cited the use of optical interconnects in digital beamforming radar applications to support larger volumes of radio frequency inputs. However, military sensing encompasses a broad array of tech commonly used in surveillance equipment like drones, spy satellites, and radar arrays — all areas Lockheed Martin is heavily invested in.

“As the complexity and amount of data grows on the battlefield, faster decision-making is essential. New innovative system architectures, coupled with AI and machine learning techniques, are needed for our customers’ mission success,” said Lockheed Martin CTO Steve Walker, in a statement.

“Ayar Labs’ optical interconnect solution provides the necessary technology to process spectral information with greater speed and lower latency for next-generation system designs.”

Under the partnership, Lockheed Martin plans to co-package its radio frequency processing devices with Ayar labs TeraPHY optical I/O chiplets and SuperNova light sources.

First demoed at Supercomputing 2019, Ayar Labs’ TeraPHY is a monolithic silicon photonics chiplet that takes electrical signals from customer chips and converts them into a high-bandwidth optical signal. The technology is designed to be packaged alongside compute tiles from various chipmakers using open standards.

The signals are encoded in light supplied by Ayar’s SuperNova chips. According to Ayar, each postage stamp sized chip is capable of supplying 8.192 Tbit/sec of bandwidth to the TeraPHY.

The technology has numerous benefits including substantially smaller packaging and lower power consumption to external optical interfaces, Ayar Labs CEO Charles Wuischpard, said in a statement.

The partnership marks Ayar Lab’s latest high-profile contract this year. In May, Nvidia announced a collaboration with Ayar to develop scale-out architectures using optical interconnects for the GPU vendor’s next-gen products. And in February, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) said it planned to integrate the silicon photonics startups tech into its Slingshot interconnect cards. ®

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