Airbus and VDL will make communication terminals 1,000 times faster

UltraAir will enable the exchange of large amounts of data using laser beams in a network of ground stations and satellites in geostationary orbit at 36,000 km above the Earth.
Loukia Papadopoulos
An illustration of Airbus' UltraAir.jpg
An illustration of Airbus' UltraAir.

Airbus  

Aerospace corporation Airbus and Dutch high-tech industrial supplier VDL Group will jointly develop and manufacture a laser communication terminal for aircraft, known as UltraAir, according to a press release by the first company published on Tuesday.

The concept is based on a project led by Airbus and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO). The two companies will now prepare a demonstration of a prototype and a first flight test in 2024.

As of 2024, the firms will further industrialize the prototype to make it ready for integration with a hosting aircraft. In fact, the companies have already planned a flight test of this industrialized prototype in 2025 on an actual aircraft.

UltraAir in action

But what exactly will UltraAir do?

“UltraAir will enable the exchange of large amounts of data using laser beams in a network of ground stations and satellites in geostationary orbit at 36,000 km above the Earth,” noted the statement.

“With unparalleled technology, including a highly stable and precise optical mechatronic system, this laser terminal will pave the way for data transmission rates that could reach several gigabits-per-second while providing anti-jamming and low probability of interception.”

This will allow military aircraft and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to connect within a multi-domain combat cloud thanks to laser-based satellite constellations such as Airbus’ SpaceDataHighway. 

A key milestone in advancing laser communications

“This is a key milestone in the roadmap of Airbus’ overall strategy to drive laser communications further, which will bring forward the benefits of this technology as a key differentiator for providing multi-domain combat collaboration for government and defense customers. In the longer term, UltraAir could also be implemented on commercial aircraft to allow airline passengers to establish high-speed data connections,” stated the press release. 

UltraAir will also help solve the bottlenecks experienced by traditional Satcom radio-frequency bands due to growth in satellite bandwidth demand. Laser communication brings 1,000 times more data, 10 times faster than the current network. 

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“Laser links also have the benefit of avoiding interference and detection, as compared to already-crowded radio frequencies, they are extremely difficult to intercept due to a much narrower beam. Thus, laser terminals can be lighter, consume less power and offer even better security than radio,” explained Airbus in its press note.

Airbus has of late been investing in all kinds of new and cutting-edge technology. In December of last year, it joined forces with CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, to launch Airbus UpNext, a project whose aim is to evaluate how superconductivity can contribute to the decarbonization of future aircraft systems. It consists of a Super-Conductor for Aviation with Low Emissions (SCALE) demonstrator that aims to promote the adaptation and adoption of superconducting technologies in airborne electrical distribution systems.

In that same month, the company was also developing a hydrogen-powered fuel cell engine as one of the potential solutions to equip its zero-emission aircraft that will enter service by 2035.