Many optical imaging, ranging, and communications systems rely on the estimation of the arrival time of an optical pulse. Recently, such systems have been increasingly employing photon-counting photodetector technology, which changes the statistics of the observed photocurrent. This requires time-of-arrival estimators to be developed and their performances characterized.

The statistics of the output of an ideal photodetector, which are well modeled as a Poisson point process, were considered. An analytical model was developed for the mean-square error of the maximum likelihood (ML) estimator,
demonstrating two phenomena that cause deviations from the minimum achievable error at low signal power. An approximation was derived to the threshold at which the ML estimator essentially fails to provide better than a random guess of the pulse arrival time. Comparing the analytic model performance predictions to those obtained via simulations, it was verified that the model accurately predicts the ML performance over all regimes considered.

There is little prior art that attempts to understand the fundamental limitations to time-of-arrival estimation from Poisson statistics. This work establishes both a simple mathematical description of the error behavior, and the associated physical processes that yield this behavior. Previous work on mean-square error characterization for ML estimators has predominantly focused on additive Gaussian noise. This work demonstrates that the discrete nature of the Poisson noise process leads to a distinctly different error behavior.

This work was done by Baris I. Erkmen and Bruce E. Moision of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. NPO-46857

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