23 September 2022
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Within a year, secure and accurate laser communication between airplanes and satellites will be possible. This is thanks to a pan-European project called UltraAir.
UltraAir is the name of the program that the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and Airbus jointly started to develop a demonstration model of a laser communication terminal for aircraft. The aim is that future UltraAir terminals will establish laser links between aircraft and satellites. The satellites orbit the earth in a geostationary orbit at a distance of 36,000 kilometers.
Laser communication between aircraft and satellites will become a vital element of warfare in the future, among other things. This will allow military aircraft to connect to what is known as the battle cloud. This is comprised of interconnected platforms and combat systems for warfare on land, at sea and in the air. UltraAir should also lead to high-speed and secure Internet connectivity for passenger airplanes.
The development of laser communications has been accelerated by the growing demand for communication in the ‘ether’. The capacity limits of traditional radio frequencies for satellite communication have been reached.
Laser communications resolve this problem. In addition, have the advantage of being virtually unaffected by interference and any potential detection. Unlike the already crowded radio frequencies, laser communication is extremely difficult to intercept because the beam is much narrower. Laser terminals are consequently more compact and therefore lighter. They also consume less energy and are more accurate as well as more secure than radio communications.
The collaboration between the European aerospace company and the Dutch scientific research organization is an example of innovative approaches being taken within Europe.
Airbus brings to this collaboration the expertise of their program that is dedicated to the development of laser satellite communications, called SpaceDataHighway. Airbus is also coordinating the development of the terminal and testing on the ground and in the air. TNO is contributing its experience in high-precision opto-mechatronics. TNO is supported by the Dutch space industry.
The first tests will take place at the end of 2021, and in early 2022, ground tests will be carried out on the Spanish island of Tenerife, where a connection will be established between an UltraAir demonstration model and the laser terminal on board the Alphasat satellite. For final verification, the UltraAir demonstration model will be integrated into aircraft in mid-2022 so that it can also be tested on flights.