Airbus has launched a programme to develop a laser communication terminal demonstrator for aircraft. The project, named UltraAir, is being developed and financed in partnership with the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and the Netherlands Space Office (NSO), and is part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ScyLight (secure and laser communication technology) programme. The programme is a key milestone in the roadmap of Airbus’s strategy to advance laser communications.
The UltraAir programme covers the design, construction and testing of the technology demonstrator of the terminal. Airbus says that laser communication technologies are the “next revolution” in satellite communications (satcom), bringing unprecedented transmission rates, data security and resilience to meet commercial needs over the next decade.
The UltraAir terminal will be capable of laser connections between an aircraft and a satellite in geostationary orbit 36,000km above Earth, with its technology including a highly stable and precise optical mechatronic system. The technology demonstrator is intended to pave the way for a future UltraAir product, which could see data transmission rates reach several gigabits-per-second while providing anti-jamming properties and a low probability of interception.
The developers are initially working towards UltraAir enabling military aircraft and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) to connect within a combat cloud, while in the longer term it is intended to allow airline passengers to establish high-speed data connections via the Airbus’ SpaceDataHighway constellation. From their position in geostationary orbit, the SpaceDataHighway (EDRS) satellites relay data collected by observation satellites to Earth in near-real-time – a process that today would usually take several hours.
Airbus is leading the project, applying its expertise in laser satellite communications developed through the SpaceDataHighway programme, and will coordinate the development of the terminal and testing on the ground and in the air. As a key partner of the project, TNO will add its experience in high-precision opto-mechatronics, supported by the Dutch space and technology industries. Airbus Defence and Space in the Netherlands will be responsible for the industrial production of the terminals, while Tesat, an Airbus subsidiary, will add technical expertise in laser communication systems and will be involved in all testing activities.
The first tests are due to take place at the end of 2021 in laboratory conditions at Tesat. In a second phase, ground tests will begin in early 2022 in Tenerife, Spain, where they plan to establish connectivity between an UltraAir demonstrator and the laser terminal, dispatched on the Alphasat satellite using the ESA Optical Ground Station. For the final verification stage, the UltraAir demonstrator will be integrated on an aircraft for flight testing by mid-2022.
Airbus says that as demand for satellite services grows, the traditional satcom radio-frequency bands are experiencing bottlenecks. Laser links can hold a solution, and also offer the benefit of avoiding interference and detection; in comparison to the already crowded radio frequencies, laser communication is extremely difficult to intercept due to its much narrower beam. Thus, laser terminals can be lighter than radio units, as well as consuming less power and offering better security.