Airbus and the Netherlands Applied Scientific Research Organization (TNO) are launching a program to develop the laser communication terminal demonstrator for aircraft, called UltraAir.
The project, co-funded by Airbus, TNO and the Dutch Space Office (NSO), is part of the European Space Agency's (ESA) ScyLight (Safe and Laser Communication Technology) program. It covers the design, construction and testing of the technology demonstrator. Laser communication technologies are a breakthrough in satellite communication (satcom) and will provide unprecedented transmission speed, data security and flexibility to meet business needs in the next decade.
The UltraAir terminal will be able to make laser connections between an aircraft and a satellite in geostatic orbit 36.000 km above Earth, with a unique technology, including a highly stable and precise optical mechatronic system. The technology demonstrator paves the way for the future UltraAir product, where data transfer speeds can reach several gigabits per second, while providing anti-interference and less possibility of interference. In this way, UltraAir will enable airline passengers to establish high-speed data connections thanks to Airbus' SpaceDataHighway constellation satellites, as well as connecting military aircraft and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in a war cloud. Space Data Highway (Edrs) satellites transmit data collected by observation satellites from their location in geostationary orbit to Earth in near real time, a process that normally takes several hours.
Leading this project, Airbus draws on its unmatched expertise in laser satellite communications developed with the Space Data Highway program. It will coordinate terminal development, ground and air testing. As a key partner of the project, TNO exhibits its experience in high-precision opto-mechatronics supported by the Dutch high-tech and space industry. Airbus Defense and Space in the Netherlands will be responsible for the industrial production of the terminals. Airbus subsidiary Tesat will take part in all testing activities, taking advantage of its technical expertise in laser communication systems.
The first tests will be held in Tesat under laboratory conditions at the end of 2021. In the second phase, ground tests will begin early in 2022 in Tenerife (Spain), where a connection will be established between the UltraAir demonstrator and the laser terminal installed on the Alphasat satellite using the ESA Optical Ground Station. In the final validation phase, the UltraAir demosntrator will be integrated into an aircraft for flight testing by mid-2022.
As the demand for satellite services increases, interest in traditional satcom radio frequency bands also decreases. Laser connections also have the advantage of avoiding interference and detection, since laser communication is a much narrower beam compared to already crowded radio frequencies and is extremely difficult to cut. Therefore, laser terminals can be lighter, consume less power, and provide better security than a radio.
Highlighting the benefits of this technology in providing multi-domain collaboration for government and defense customers, the program is an important milestone in Airbus' strategy to further advance laser communications.