Home » Budget Industry » Office of Naval Research Set to Upgrade the 200-Year-Old Signal Lamp for Modern Stealth Communication


Office of Naval Research Set to Upgrade the 200-Year-Old Signal Lamp for Modern Stealth Communication

QM3 Karlo Broussard communicates with ships in Pearl Harbor using a signal lamp in the Naval Station Pearl Harbor Signal Control Tower in 2008. US Navy Photo

For more than 200 years the signal lamp was used by navies the world over to silently send messages over stretches of distant seas. But since the close of World War II the fundamentals behind the signaling device haven’t changed much, as new types of radio and digital communications surpassed the speed and reliability of visual signaling.

Now, a new project from the Office of Naval Research is set to bring new life and operational relevance to the signal lamp by giving it a 21st-century upgrade to automate sending and receiving messages.

In the modern U.S. Navy the lamps are still important for radio silent operations where ships are close together – like underway replenishments – but outside specific instances they’re not often used.

“Whenever you were around another ship at night, you made the signalmen do it,” Bryan McGrath, the former commander of the guided-missile destroyer USS Bulkeley (DDG-84), told USNI News on Tuesday.
“We’d go to talk to the other signalmen for the hell of it because it’s so rare that you got do it.”

Acting on a 2016 request from the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC), the ONR TechSolutions office ran a test in June to replace a trained signal operator with a camera and a digital tablet to send messages back and forth in dots and dashes of Morse code.

The Flashing Light to Text Converter (FLTC) was developed as part of $750,000 effort with ONR, Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City, Fla., and Creative MicroSystems Corp.

“Our tablet has the text messaging interface software on it. It has a USB camera that mounts to the searchlight, and it’s got a signal cable to the controlling mechanism,” ONR TechSoultions assistant program manager Jason Payne told USNI News on Tuesday.
“A sailor types a message on the tablet. Hits send and then one of those… variants automates the flashing to transmit the Morse code from one signal lamp to be picked up by the camera mounted to the opposing signal lamp, which sends [the signal] back to the tablet for translation.”

The initial June test proved basic Morse code can be sent back and forth between ships – in this case cruiser USS Monterey (CG-61) and destroyer USS Stout (DDG-55) as the ships sat pierside at Naval Station Norfolk, Va.

ONR told USNI News that early feedback from sailors was positive and that they wanted additional capabilities like being able to send pre-written common messages and having the tablet come equipped with a translator for foreign ships. Marines are interested in using the lamps to signal to ships from deployed units ashore.

The next series of tests will swap the lamp’s xenon light bulb for an LED array for a more complex test that could transmit thousands of characters a second using visible light.

“We’re doing a follow-on effort, a Phase 2 to pursue the LED solution to achieve a 1khz rate of transmission – or about 1,200 words per minute – using the Morse code scheme, but we would like to explore a binary method or even modulation of the frequency of the LED,” Payne said.

Modulating the output of LED lights as a transmission medium for massive amounts of information is an emerging in the commercial world.

“With LEDs, it is possible to control light brightness at a frequency much higher than conventional light bulbs: LEDs can be switched on and off at very high rates. As result, LED-based lighting can be used for wireless communication services by modulating the intensity of the emitted light,” according to Disney Research, who is using the technology to develop children’s products.
“We call this concept Visible Light Communication (VLC) with LED-to-LED networking. … VLC creates opportunities for low-cost, safe, and environmentally friendly wireless communication solutions.”

In other words, VLC – or LiFi – is communication that can move major amounts of data without using electromagnetic signals that could be detected and deciphered by adversaries listening in. The modification of the signal lamp and the inclusion of sensors that can read the LED information passed via the visual light – or near infrared – could provide ships an avenue to move significant amounts of data beyond the 120 characters a minute that could be sent with an exceptional Morse code operator.

“I think it’s genius,” McGrath said.
“In an era which signal control is going to be at a premium and we’re going to want, when we want to be able to thoroughly cut off as much the exploitable signals as we can on surface ships, this is true genius.”

ONR is set to run its next test in September.

  • Bubblehead

    I was in 1 of the last classes to learn morse code through a radio on a sibmarine. Sad it is no longer taught.

    • Carl

      What year was that? I was a commo on an FFG in the mid-90’s. We had a straight key on the desk in radio still, but the RMC and RM1 were the only two radiomen who actually had learned morse code.

      It looks like flashing light is yet another traditional skill the Navy is trying to abolish.

      • publius_maximus_III

        Prediction: next thing to go will be hemp rope.

        • Secundius

          The NEC 9169 Course was move back to and renamed the CID (Center for Information Dominance) at Corry Station, Pensacola in 2005. Since than 12 Center around the USA have been established and 1 in Japan too…

        • Georgfelis

          There is no hemp rope in the Navy. If it’s on a ship, it’s a line, not a rope. 🙂

          • publius_maximus_III

            Curses, foiled again.

          • Alicia Maloney

            Hey, does it make ya Mad, Max

          • publius_maximus_III

            Oh Jeezums, you are now on time out.

          • Hey people there is rope in the USN. Bell rope, tow rope, plus some more that I have forgotten.

          • publius_maximus_III

            Thanks for the input, Capitano. Being a landlubber cilvilian, my knowledge is limited. Thank you for your service to your country. BTW, I’m a fellow NC-er, other end of da state.

          • Alicia Maloney

            AARRGHHH….or, are you just feeding me a line, matey. avast yer grog
            be laced with swill

        • MoonBeamWatcher

          It’s gone! All line is nylon and it can compress from
          2″ down to less then a 1/2 inch and can kill you!
          Other available is WIRE ROPE that when running HOT
          will split a tug cabin in 1/2 and clip off vent stacks like a
          hot knife threw butter. Will cut a sailor in 1/2 too!

          • Secundius

            With the Exception of “Execution’s Rope” which is still made of 3/4-inch “Italian Hemp”. Nylon isn’t used because of it’s ability to Stretch and Compress…

          • old guy

            Well, “No noose is good noose.”

          • publius_maximus_III

            MBW — You should watch the opening scene of the movie “Ghost Ship” (2002).

            My understanding about nylon is it’s a hygroscopic material, meaning it absorbs or loses moisture to its surroundings, so its mechanical properties fluctuate accordingly. Amazingly strong stuff, but the safety issue you describe definitely sounds like a weakness.

      • Bubblehead

        Early 90s, but that was a sub radio class. We literally sat in a chair, put on head phones, and listened and typed morse code from 7AM-4:30PM. Glad surface radio kept morse going. On a sub, quartermasters learned the light signal morse.

        For those unaware, there is actually a very good reason to learn morse code. It is resistant to EMP interference in case nuclear war.

  • Secundius

    Sounds like “Rolling Light” Communications!/? …

  • Bull Jones

    Perhaps this will encourage the FCC to reinstate Morse requirements for Amateur Radio ops. At least I pray so…
    de KK4AXX

    • Secundius

      Back in 1October 2015, the World’s Fastest Camera was invented!/? With a Shutter Speed of One Femtosecond (1/1,000,000,000,000,000th of a second. That equivalent to and Object Flying past your Face at ~671,000,000mph. Equate that to a Fash Traffic Signal, the Human Eye would Perceive it as a Single Flash of Light. Consider how much Cryptic Information could be past in that amount of time…

      • Curtis Conway

        Now what was that experiment that was conducted in movie theaters?

        • Secundius

          Are you referring to the Samsung Theater Size TV Screen…

          • Curtis Conway

            No. Soda Pop and Popcorn in the movie theaters, and an image was flashed long enough for the brain to comprehend and be influenced by the message, but the conscious mind never actually focused upon it. The programming business is a whole different issue.

          • Secundius

            Unfortunately Virginia’s Movie Theaters AREN’T very Wheelchair Friendly!/? So the Last time I was in one was in 2012, but I don’t recall any “Subliminal Messaging” at the Concession Stand. Still left with what I went to get…

          • Curtis Conway

            The original subliminal messaging took place back in the 50’s and 60’s. That is why it was made illegal. Today ? . . it’s SOP!

          • Secundius

            And your telling me this, “Why”?/!

          • Curtis Conway

            How long have you been limited with a wheel chair?

            My whole train of thought was to point out that the things that once were thought aberrant, unethical, and illegal, are SOP today by the Press, and the Powers that Be. Since we have a huge part of the population that have NOT received a classical education, and are now programmed to just believe and obey, even if a concept does not stand up to logical scrutiny, and is totally off base, they still jump off a cliff like a lemming because the government says so.

          • Secundius

            Since 2005!/? But “Subliminal Messaging” started in the 5th Century BCE by the Greeks and was called “The Age of Manipulation”…

          • old guy

            You sound like a prose version of Cole Porter’s,”Anything Goes.”

          • old guy

            Subliminal suggestions and learning have been tried for many years, with very limited effect. I took a test with it, once,and failed miserably.

      • old guy

        I think that in this smartphone age, we have too much information. It clouds the really valuable and useful stuff.

        • Secundius

          Oh Go AHEAD!/? YOU’RE Going to REDACT the Comment Anyway (USNI News)…

          • old guy

            They are getting a bit P.C. but they let most get posted. Whatever you do, DO NOT discontinue your VERY savvy and precise commentary.

          • Secundius

            I have a couple of Bluetooth/Wi-Fi programmable lights that with the Aid of an iPad and/or iPhone and a “18 20 23 24 5″ APPlication can both Transmit outgoing and Decode incoming signals. Don’t know whether or not if any of the APPlications are Daylight Readable. Never got the chance in the Army to Learn, to many Physical Injuries got in the way. And after”Stroke” in 2010, Long Term Memory is “Iffy” at best. Constantly having to Write Personnal Memo’s just to keep existing memories straight.

            This is Sort Of what got me REDACTED by “Fo-Police”…

          • old guy

            Your “IFFY” memory seems to beat the razor-sharip recall of most of us out here.!

          • Secundius

            It’s “ALMOST” like the Movie “50 First Dates”!/? My Neurologist, says that ANYTHING from a “Sound” to a “Smell” or even a “Word Phrase” can Reconnect “Memories”?/! For ME I just have to take his word for it, or NOT. He’s rated in the Top 94%’tile Group of Neurologist in the USA, if that counts for anything…

          • old guy

            Keep up the good work. I forgot, why and who am I sending this?

          • Secundius

            Thanks!/?

          • old guy

            We old codgers have to stick together. The young ones may be faster But, “Age and guile will beat youth and enthusiasm, every time.”

          • old guy

            We wonder how we should react,
            when the editor cries,”I’ll redact”
            should we get overwrought
            and think a nasty thought
            Or just write something else, with more tact.

          • Secundius

            There was nothing Inflammatory or Insulting in the Comment, other then mentioning HIS Name!/? George W’s VP…

        • Secundius

          Sorry!/? I got as far as Agreeing with your comment, before USNI News took issue with the Rest of My Comment and Reacted Me…

  • Michael D. Woods

    And how about an option to operate outside the visible spectrum too, so enemy ship and airplane operators can’t see it.

  • Hugh

    And semaphore flags……..

  • John Locke

    750k to reinvent the wheel.
    AN/PAQ-6

    ONR and NRL are notorious for snapping up pet projects that don’t transition to the Fleet.

    • old guy

      Be fair. ONR has been the whipping boy for years. NRL has the rep as a country club (and a smelly one at that) But not deserved. Some of the best and brightest have worked at both places. The REAL problem is the lack of imagination of the Navy, except for one period, when ADM Elmo (Bud) Zumwalt, was CNO.

      • publius_maximus_III

        Great Zumwalt biography available through the USNI, Pappy, I recommend it. But also don’t forget Nimitz, who “imagined” the setting of the battleship sun, and the rise of both the submarine and carrier — another great biography.

        A service burdened with s-o-o-o much tradition is bound to lag behind the others in imagination and innovation, but not always a bad thing having good roots. Steady as she goes, IMO.

        • old guy

          Why not. We still,”SET SAIL”, “STEAM AWAY” with SAILORS,,ask,” When do we SAIL?, HAHAHA.
          Incidentally, I worked, for a while, directly, for “BIG Z”, as technical advisor for high speed ships, Great man. Too young for ADM Nimitz. Read all, good and bad (mostly jealousy).

          • publius_maximus_III

            A shame about his son, a Naval officer who later died of cancer. He was a victim of his own Dad’s decision to use Agent Orange along the riverbanks of ‘Nam, to reduce cover for snipers picking off USN Riverines (like his son).

            I’ll bet you still have some of Zoomie’s Z-grams squirreled away somewhere, OG. Did you let your whiskers grow back then?

            Re: Nimitz, while he was serving in the USN in China right after WW-I he fell in love with a Russian gal there and married her. Imagine his being our CNO today, would the MSM ever be having a field day with him.

            CORRECTION (7/31/17): Sorry, confused my two admirals. It was Zumwalt, not Nimitz, who while serving in the USN in China right after WW-II, fell in love with and married a Russian girl he met there. Nimitz, a Texan, married a gal from Massachusetts. But you knew that all along didn’t you, Old Guy?

          • old guy

            Big”Z”s wife was Russian, too. I met his wife several times, in the ’70s at SNAME and ASNE dinners. The most interesting was one time at the Spanish embassy armed forces day celebration. We were in a conversation with the Russian naval attache, I believe his name was CAPT ALEXI SMIRNOFF. He spoke Russian to her but she responded in perfect English
            One little known fact. He called his wife “MOUSE”, I think it was close to her Russian name.
            I have a “Z”-gram from him after the “HAIL and FAREWELL” that said, “Good luck with Hollaway, he’s a battleship Admiral.
            I am clean shaven (most of the time)

          • publius_maximus_III

            Sorry for the confusion, see my correction above — Old Timer’s Disease.

          • Attm Motob

            Only if he was Republican .
            Dem rule #1: No law applies to Dems.

  • RunningBear

    Lasers, an even higher data rate??

    • publius_maximus_III

      PutYaSkiviesOn — I hear there’s a high burn out rate for those receiving such signals.

  • publius_maximus_III

    “But since the close of World War II the fundamentals behind the signaling device haven’t changed much, as new types of radio and digital communications surpassed the speed and reliability of visual signaling.”

    Sorry, Sam, but I must object. If we’ve come up with something with a speed that is faster than 186,000 miles per second then it would seem Einstein was all wet.

    • Secundius

      Speed of Light is ~299,792,458m/sec. or ~670,616,633.812mph!/? SORRY, I just Rounded it’d off…

      • publius_maximus_III

        Next homework assignment: rods per nanosecond.

        That’s almost as fast as my High (cough, cough) Speed Internet from Spectrum, a.k.a Time Warner.

        • Secundius

          ~0.0596103670563907/nanosecond!/? How’s the Your treatment for “Atsaliphillia” coming alone? Got it under control yet…

          • publius_maximus_III

            ατσάλι — sorry, that’s Greek to me, a Roman sailor. Speaking of navigation, did I ever tell you the one about two ships on intersecting courses with exactly the same bearing taken two different times? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

          • Secundius

            Forgotten already?/! Procreation with STEEL…

          • publius_maximus_III

            Oh, r-i-i-i-ght, Sorry.

          • Secundius

            You’re like Snuffles! on YouTube when it comes to Steel…

  • publius_maximus_III

    OK, Old Tars, please translate for the rest of us. What’s the message being sent in the animated photo above? Looks like da-da-dit over and over.

    • Alicia Maloney

      “G” ‘G’ “G” “G” “G”
      (Ham of the old code)

      • publius_maximus_III

        thanky kindly, ma’am

      • publius_maximus_III

        Didn’t Maurice Chavalier use to sing that?

        • old guy

          Nah, that was just GiGi (unless there were more in hiding.

  • Pilots should know Morse code – how else would you know you’re tuned to the right Navaid?

  • John Wohlwend

    Dah-dah-dit = G

  • Refguy

    Not exactly cutting edge. I was talking to a cab driver last week who uses his laptop to send and receive Morse. He connects it to his ham set, types the message in plain English and hits send; his radio transmits the Morse equivalent. The laptop also “listens” to incoming Morse and presents it as plain text on the screen.

    • John Locke

      been around for years

    • dbeierl

      In the late eighties I had a PK-232 packet controller that would send and receive Morse. I used it in a different mode, paired with two receivers to listen to SITOR (ShIps Telex Over Radio). Intercepted over 2000 telexes in a couple years, some of them pretty interesting. It could also decode the RTTY format the Russians used to send family messages home from the fishing fleet.

      • Refguy

        Thanks for the reminder about Telex

  • Centaurus

    Why not go back to semaphores ? Like , real false-flags

  • Ed L

    signal flags and flashing light are nice an simple. Also the dismissal of the SM rating removed at least 2 set of eyes on watch while underway. I remember when in homeport the SM’s would practice their semaphore flags and using the signal lamp with other ships SM’s

  • Great Article Sam. Interesting conversation relative to VLC. The Federal Government currently has two contracts with the inventor and patent holder of VLC technology. One contract constitutes joint R&D with NASA, the other is a license agreement with the U.S. government. The Navy or any other branch of the government has the ability to freely use the technology by simply paying a license fee to execute their use of the technology (such as mentioned by the Navy). VLC has been commercially operating under the patent holder in commercial venues for years. The company is LVX System. Should any armed forces reader need access to the technology, they simply need to contact either LVX system or NASA at Kennedy Space center.

  • BBMW

    How about open circuit laser networking. This is a COTS product.

  • MarlineSpikeMate

    Unlimited tonnage US merchant mariners are still required to pass a flashing light Morris code test for their license. The USCG has slowed down the characters per minute requirement however. As much as I am proud of the training the merchant marines receive, and hate it when the navy gets rid of basic seamanship, I think this is a great idea, especially if they can up the characters per minute to 1200!

    • Secundius

      The US Navy DIDN’T Discard the program?/! They just changed the Name to CID (Center for Information Dominance). STILL taught at Corry Station at Pensacola, Florida. And 14 plus 4 Newer Locations in the United States and 1 in Japan…

      • MarlineSpikeMate

        To what rates?

        • Secundius

          Depend on what you rank was AFTER you’re First Duty Posting. Each is a 19-week Course for Rates and NCO’s and Longer for Warrant Officers and Officer Grades…

          • MarlineSpikeMate

            I’m not sure. The only rates I’ve seen that somewhat know Morris and flashing light is QMs, but they didn’t get any thorough training on it.

          • Secundius

            Tried to Answer THIS Comment!/? USNI News won’t let me Post Comment…

          • Secundius

            Let’s see if this Message gets through the USNI News filters.

            The Center for Information Dominance (CID) is a Voluntary Course to those that want to take it. Information is available through the United States Center for Information Warfare Training Public Affairs, Under either US Navy’s CID program or US Navy’s Center for Information Dominance program under the (Navy . com) website. Program started in 7 July 2005, and are on Multiple Site Listings. NO ONE SOURCE for ALL…

  • Ed L

    I remember when striking for Boatswain Mate. I need to know Morse as one of my requirements. That was back when the Fram II Destroyers were still around.