Transport Online – VDL Groep and Airbus join forces on laser communication terminals for aircraft

EINDHOVEN – Airbus and VDL Groep will collaborate in the development and production of so-called laser communication terminals for aircraft, called UltraAir. We start with the development and production of a prototype. A first test flight is planned for 2024. This builds on the development initiated by the aviation company Airbus and the research organization TNO.

The UltraAir equipment makes it possible to exchange large amounts of data using laser links, in a network of ground stations and satellites orbiting 36,000 kilometers above the earth. With advanced technology, including a highly stable and precise opto-mechatronic system, laser communication terminals enable transmission speeds of gigabits per second while minimizing interference and minimizing the likelihood of eavesdropping.

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In this way, UltraAir enables military aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles to connect using laser-based satellite constellations, such as Airbus’ so-called SpaceDataHighway network. In Airbus’ strategy to further develop laser communications, this is an important step that highlights the significant benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration for government and defense customers. In the longer term, UltraAir could also be used in commercial aircraft to enable passengers to establish high-speed data connections.

Next revolution

As a solution for data traffic in the quantum age, laser communication technology is the next revolution in satellite communication (satcom). The growing demand for satellite services is reaching the limits of the capacity of traditional radio frequencies for satellite communications. However, laser satellite communication makes it possible to process a thousand times as much data, a factor of 10 faster than via the current network. Laser links also have the advantage that they suffer little from interference and possible detection. Unlike the already crowded radio frequencies, laser communications are difficult to intercept because the beam is narrower. Laser satellite terminals are therefore more compact and lighter, consume less energy and are more secure than radio links.

The collaboration between Airbus and VDL includes the development of a demonstration model and prototype of the UltraAir, as well as the necessary follow-up steps to produce the UltraAir in volume. VDL ETG Almelo takes care of the production and, among other things, must also supply critical systems. Airbus will then market the UltraAir.

Added value

“As a high-tech supplier and partner for companies in the semiconductor industry in particular, we see a lot of added value in tackling the challenges of this project for Airbus,” says director Sander Verschoor of VDL ETG Almelo. “In order to produce these complex terminals, which will be equipped with mirrors and motors as well as mechatronics and optics, in volume production, we will be closely involved in the development of the technology from the start. Here, for example, we use our system architecture and design skills. We naturally work closely with other partners, such as Demcon and TNO.”

Investments

Airbus and VDL Groep will take further steps in 2024 for the industrialization of the prototype to prepare the laser communication terminal for integration with an aircraft. A test flight of the industrialized prototype of an aircraft is planned for 2025. The development of UltraAir is made possible by investments from Airbus and VDL Groep and is supported by the ESA ScyLight program (Secure and Laser Communication Technology) and by the Growth Fund proposal NxtGen that has been awarded to High tech, led by TNO and a group of Dutch companies.

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