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Optical Fiber Sensing

Senses the world and draws out insights into the future through optical fibers running across the globe

Optical communication and AI technologies are the fields of expertise in which NEC has been leading the world for many years. Our Optical Fiber Sensing Technology is a unique innovation derived from our deep knowledge and rich experience in these fields. For the first time ever, NEC is now engaging in the creation of new values through this new technology that allows the use of existing optical fiber networks running throughout the globe as sensors.

AI-based analysis of vibrations, temperature,
and sounds sensed by existing optical fiber networks

Optical fiber sensing is a technology that measures vibrations, temperature, and sounds through optical fibers. As optical fibers themselves serve as sensors, the potential of this technology has attracted strong attention globally and has been studied all over the world for decades for its unique advantages, such as the capability for linear and seamless sensing rather than distributed sensing, the fact that communication purpose optical fibers also serve as sensors, and that no power supply is needed for the realization of sensing. However, the applications have been limited as conventional methods demanded installing specialized optical fibers for sensing. This also led to great cost being incurred in order to gain data for application.
On the contrary, for the first time in the world, our new optical fiber sensing technology enables sensing from already-laid optical fibers for communication. By simply placing an optical fiber sensor device at one end of the optical fibers, the system can sense vibrations, temperature, and sounds within a range of up to 100km at a resolution of about 50cm. Unlike conventional technologies, laying new optical fibers for sensing purposes is not required. This means that the huge amount of optical fiber based communication networks running throughout the globe can be used as sensors.
In addition, NEC possesses a variety of AI technologies. These technologies will enable precious values and insights to be drawn out from the huge amount of sensed data, which has been left unused in the past. For example, in the case of equipment failure detection, conventional monitoring operations are subject to various factors based on certain thresholds. This can be furnished with AI to detect “signs” of failure based on the state of operation. Another case is that optical fibers laid underneath roads can be used to detect traffic congestion and types of vehicles passing over the roads after learning specific vibration patterns.
What we are pursuing today is a novel concept of integrating networks with existing optical fibers for communications purposes that also serve as “sensory organs” or a “nerve system” with AI as the “brain.” Now, optical fibers networks cover almost the entire Earth, including aerial cabling mounted on poles on land, buried cabling along roads and railways, and submarine cables under the water connecting islands and continents. Through these networks, we are pursuing sensing and analyzing activities of cities, nations, and the entire globe to draw out insights into the future.

Synergy with 5G will enable sensing at higher resolutions

Compared with general IoT sensors, optical fiber sensing technology has two advantages. One is the capability for easily monitoring a wide area. As optical fibers enable “linear” sensing, it is possible to sense at higher resolutions than normal IoT sensors that are designed to take measurements at “points” where the sensors are installed. In addition, it does not demand new power sources. This advantage is further enhanced by the flexible and light characteristics of optical fiber cables.
In addition to these, existing optical fibers are today stretched out in a finely meshed overland pattern, and “lines” are densely overlapped so that even “planar” sensing is becoming possible. As 5G spreads in the future, the mesh of the networks will become even finer, like capillaries, and it will reach small areas, making the sensing resolution much higher. Moreover, nowadays, optical fibers are running not only under and above the surface of the ground but also inside skyscrapers. Along with future improvements to analytical accuracy, with the addition of the third dimension, we expect three-dimensional “height” sensing will also be possible in the future.
The other advantage is real-time analysis. This is because optical fibers themselves serve as both communication channels and sensors. This means there is no need to establish new data networks. Thus, the entire process of acquiring data through networks is no longer necessary, which results in fewer time lags and more real-time processing.
Yet, our technology is not competing with IoT sensors. Rather, we assume these two technologies will be closely linked together. In fact, we foresee linkage with various data sources. For example, meteorological data obtained from IoT sensors can be combined with optical fiber sensing data for analysis, or distributed IoT sensors as “points” can be complemented by “linear” networks of optical fiber sensing. The needs of data formulation may vary greatly depending on the field of use. Looking at the potential evolution of this technology in the future, we would like to contribute to society by pioneering a new service platform.

With regard to the applicability of the technology, a technology validation experiment has already been successfully conducted. In October 2019, we conducted a joint validation experiment with Verizon Communications, one of the leading telecommunication operators in the US. In this validation, we successfully demonstrated the possibility of the co-existence of 36.8Tb/s communication and our sensing technologies over Verizon’s commercial networks. Meanwhile, we also confirmed the ability to identify the number of vehicles, the direction of movement and the variation in vehicle speed by combining our AI analysis technology.
“This test marks an important milestone for technology that could provide a huge leap forward for those building smart cities and those tasked to manage them,” commented Mr. Adam Koeppe, the Senior Vice President for Technology Strategy and Planning at Verizon. We believe the outcomes of the validation experiment provided new guidance for future smart city development and optical fiber laying planning.

Realization of disaster-resilient smart cities,
and applicability to autonomous driving

Our optical fiber sensing technology has a broad scope of application in various fields. Potential applications of this technology are expected from smart cities to autonomous driving and crime detection in urban areas. An example is infrastructure deterioration diagnosis, where the personal knowledge of highly-experienced experts has been indispensable. Our optical fiber sensing technology can automate the workflow. Superior disaster resilience is also one of the key features of this technology. As optical fibers do not require an additional power supply, sensing and monitoring traffic volume and the flow of people can be realized even in the middle of power failure, as long as stations are powered and optical fibers are connected. Even small signals from the connected optical fibers is sensed so that even SOS signals tapped on a pole by an isolated person can be detected.
In view of all of these potential applications, we are eager to complete a service platform based on the advantages of our technology.
Our challenge is completely new to the world. Thus, there are no precedent model cases regarding the use of sensing operations and the system. Further on from now, it will be essential to establish practical schemes through validations in more customer operations with speed. Fortunately, NEC has a long-standing track record of system delivery in various industries, as well as many experienced and knowledgeable experts in B2B and B2G domains. We look forward to developing the services through collaboration with a variety of customers and partners.

Yoshiaki Aono
Transport Network Department