Why the Navy Sees Morse Code as the Future of Communication

The U.S. Navy turns to texting to revitalize a reliable, yet underused communication technique.

A signal lamp aboard the USS Stout beam message in Morse to the USS Monterey. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy.)

A signal lamp aboard the USS Stout beam message in Morse to the USS Monterey. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy.)

For centuries, mariners around the globe have used lamps and shutters to beam messages via Morse code from ship to ship. But today, Morse code isn’t being learned by every sailor, even though lamp light communication is still being used.

So, how we reconcile these two facts? Well, if you’re the U.S. Navy you update your lamp light communication systems to encode the modern form of Morse code: texting.

In a test recent carried out aboard the USS Stout, the U.S. Navy used a new mechanism it calls the Flashing Light to Text Converter (FLTC) system. During the test, sailors aboard the Stout fired off text messages and the FLTC converted them to their Morse code lamp light signals which were interpreted by the USS Monterey, moored at a dock in Norfolk, Virginia.

“The best part of this flashing light converter is how easy it is for sailors to use,” said Scott Lowery, a Naval Surface Warfare Center engineer. “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.”

In fact, the system seems so intuitive to use that the sailors decided to play one the most literalist jokes in the book when asked to send Lowery a message. “I asked them to text me something random, so they signaled the word ‘random,” said Lowery. Taking the rather lame attempt at humor in stride, Lowery added. “Simple, but it shows the system is working.”

Though the FLTC is still in its prototype phase, the Office of Naval Research seems to be developing a foolproof system for delivering messages even if radio communications are down. Essentially, the FLTC uses nothing more than a lamps that are either LED-based (they can flicker on and off digitally) or have shutters that are controlled by fast acting stepper motors which open and close mechanically, and a GoPro camera for receiving incoming messages.

The neat bit of technology that ties these elements together is an algorithm that can interpret text message sent from a computer, of handheld device, convert them to Morse code, clap out the message via light, and vice versa.

With this successful test, the U.S. Navy asserts that it’s developed a system that it can quickly deploy to its fleet. With a few more tests under its belt, the U.S. aquatic fleet could have FLTC system out to its ships sometime in 2018.

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