In a photon counting detector array, each pixel in the array produces an electrical pulse when an incident photon on that pixel is detected. Detection and demodulation of an optical communication signal that modulated the intensity of the optical signal requires counting the number of photon arrivals over a given interval. As the size of photon counting photodetector arrays increases, parallel processing of all the pixels exceeds the resources available in current application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) and gate array (GA) technology; the desire for a high fill factor in avalanche photodiode (APD) detector arrays also precludes this.

Processing can be distributed across an ASIC and GA through downsampling and windowing portions of the Detector Array.
Through the use of downsampling and windowing portions of the detector array, the processing is distributed between the ASIC and GA. This allows demodulation of the optical communication signal incident on a large photon counting detector array, as well as providing architecture amenable to algorithmic changes.

The detector array readout ASIC functions as a parallel-to-serial converter, serializing the photodetector array output for subsequent processing. Additional downsampling functionality for each pixel is added to this ASIC. Due to the large number of pixels in the array, the readout time of the entire photodetector is greater than the time between photon arrivals; therefore, a downsampling pre-processing step is done in order to increase the time allowed for the readout to occur. Each pixel drives a small counter that is incremented at every detected photon arrival or, equivalently, the charge in a storage capacitor is incremented. At the end of a user-configurable counting period (calculated independently from the ASIC), the counters are sampled and cleared. This downsampled photon count information is then sent one counter word at a time to the GA.

For a large array, processing even the downsampled pixel counts exceeds the capabilities of the GA. Windowing of the array, whereby several subsets of pixels are designated for processing, is used to further reduce the computational requirements. The grouping of the designated pixel frame as the photon count information is sent one word at a time to the GA, the aggregation of the pixels in a window can be achieved by selecting only the designated pixel counts from the serial stream of photon counts, thereby obviating the need to store the entire frame of pixel count in the gate array. The pixel count se quence from each window can then be processed, forming lower-rate pixel statistics for each window. By having this processing occur in the GA rather than in the ASIC, future changes to the processing algorithm can be readily implemented.

The high-bandwidth requirements of a photon counting array combined with the properties of the optical modulation being detected by the array present a unique problem that has not been addressed by current CCD or CMOS sensor array solutions.

This work was done by Ferze D. Patawaran, William H. Farr, Danh H. Nguyen, Kevin J. Quirk, and Adit Sahasrabudhe of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NPO-48346