Airbus and TNO to develop a laser communication terminal for aircraft

The European aircraft manufacturer Airbus and the Dutch Institute for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) have launched a program to develop a laser communication terminal demonstrator for aircraft, known as UltraAir.

It is also co-sponsored by the Dutch Space Agency (NSO) and is part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ScyLight (Secure and Laser communication technology) program.

The UltraAir program aims to design, develop and test a technology demonstration system. Laser communication technologies are considered the next step of satellite communications (Satcom) due to the ability to transmit a huge volume of signals safely. The revolutionary technology would provide unprecedented transmission rates, data security, and resilience to meet commercial needs in the next decade.

The UltraAir terminal will be tested using lasers to connect an aircraft to a satellite in geostationary orbit 36,000 km above the Earth. If the tests are successful, the production UltraAir will be able to transmit several gigabits-per-second while providing anti-jamming and a low probability of interception. In military use, UltraAir will enable military aircraft and UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to connect within a combat cloud. In the longer term, it will also allow airline passengers to establish high-speed data connections thanks to the Airbus’ SpaceDataHighway constellation.

The first test is expected to take place at the end of 2021 in a laboratory, while the field tests will start in the first half of 2022, provided that the laboratory tests are successful. For the final verification, the UltraAir demonstrator will be integrated on an aircraft for flight testing by mid-2022.

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