Airbus Wants To Use Lasers To Connect Planes To The Internet

Airbus is working with an organization in the Netherlands to beam data to aircraft from space. The technology will use lasers to connect planes with the internet, and could see speeds of up to 1.8 Gbps. In partnership with the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), Airbus aims to begin flight testing the system by mid-2022.

Airbus laser beam wifi
Airbus wants to beam WiFi to aircraft, providing speeds of up to 1.8 Gbps. Photo: Airbus

Sending WiFi via laser

Airbus has launched a program in partnership with the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) to develop a demonstrator laser communication terminal for aircraft. The demonstrator, known as UltraAir, will be the first to fully explore the benefits of beaming WiFi signals to aircraft from space, something Airbus says is set to be the “next revolution in satellite communications”.

UltraAir will facilitate communication between an aircraft in flight and a satellite in geostationary orbit. The technology will include a stable, precise optical mechatronic system, which Airbus hopes will provide unprecedented transmission rates, data security, and the capacity to meet the needs of the future.

While there are many benefits of this system for military and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), this is not the only target market for the system. Airbus says that, in the longer term, such technology will allow airline passengers to connect to the internet at previously unimaginable speeds, and with more reliability and wider coverage than ever before.

Airbus laser beam wifi
The proposal uses a relay system to transmit data at previously unachievable speeds. Photo: Airbus

Key to this proposition is the SpaceDataHighway, a partnership project between Airbus and the European Space Agency. This highway uses lasers too, to relay information from low-Earth orbit satellites and airborne platforms via GEO satellite at exceptionally high speeds. Initially conceived as a rapid response mechanism for disaster relief and intervention, its capacity for relaying data at rates of 1.8 Gbps could be a crucial cog in the inflight WiFi of the future.

When can we expect to hear more?

Airbus is bringing its expertise in laser satellite communications to the table, while TNO is leveraging its experience in high-precision optomechatronics. Together, the team has the right tools to get this type of project off the ground.

In terms of testing, Airbus plans to prepare the technology for its first tests by the end of this year. These initial tests will be undertaken in laboratory conditions, in partnership with Airbus subsidiary Tesat. Tesat has extensive experience in laser communications itself, and will be involved in all the testing processes.

Airbus laser beam wifi
Flight testing is hoped for by mid-2022. Photo: Airbus

Next, ground testing will take place in Tenerife, earmarked for early 2022. During this test, connectivity will be established between an UltraAir demonstrator terminal and a geostationary satellite. Airbus plans to link up with Alphasat, an ESA satellite that was deployed in 2013. It remains the largest European satellite ever built, measuring 2.8 meters in length.

If all goes to plan, Airbus will begin flight testing the technology in mid-2022. We could therefore expect deployment in the commercial aviation space some two to four years after that.

Laser terminals are lighter, less power-hungry and more secure than radio frequency communications. With traditional Ku and Ka-band services hitting increasingly frequent bottlenecks, laser communications have the potential to solve a lot of aviation’s connectivity problems in the future.


Airbus Wants To Use Lasers To Connect Planes To The Internet

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