Airbus partners with VDL to develop laser communication terminal for aircraft

Technology will enable the exchange of large amounts of data using laser beams

Laser communications could be installed on commercial aircraft in the future. Reuters
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Airbus has signed a partnership agreement with Dutch high-tech industrial supplier VDL Group for the development and manufacturing of a laser communication terminal for aircraft.

Known as UltraAir, it will enable the exchange of large amounts of data using laser beams in a network of ground stations and satellites in geostationary orbit 36,000km above the Earth.

Military aircraft and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) will be able to connect within a multi-domain combat cloud thanks to laser-based satellite constellations such as Airbus’s SpaceDataHighway, Airbus said in a statement.

"In the longer term, UltraAir could also be implemented on commercial aircraft to allow airline passengers to establish high-speed data connections," the aircraft manufacturer said.

"Regarded as the solution for data traffic in the quantum age, laser communication technologies are the next revolution in satellite communications [satcom[."

An illustration of Airbus's laser communication plan. Photo: Airbus

Airbus and VDL Group will prepare a demonstration of a prototype and plan a first flight test in 2024.

Then, the prototype will be further industrialised to prepare it for integration with a hosting aircraft.

A flight test of this industrialised prototype on an aircraft is planned in 2025.

Laser communications will enable 10 to 100 times more data transmitted back to Earth than current radio frequency systems, according to Nasa.

It gave the example of transmitting a complete map of Mars back to Earth, which would take about nine weeks with current radio frequency systems, but with lasers would take about nine days.

Nasa started testing laser communications in 2021 when it launched its Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) into orbit, about 35,405km from Earth.

It began a two-year experiment period for LCRD in May.

Airbus outlined the benefits as data transmission rates that could reach several gigabits per second, while providing anti-jamming and low probability of interception due to a much narrower beam.

Laser communication can avoid interference and detection when compared with already crowded radio frequencies, and can be lighter and consume less power.

Updated: January 11, 2023, 1:08 PM