René Raaijmakers
11 January

Airbus and VDL are partnering in the development and production of the UltraAir laser communication system for defense and aviation. The aerospace specialist and TNO are providing the technological basis. Demcon is assisting in the development of the crucial optomechatronical parts. A first test flight is scheduled for next year.

The capacity of traditional radio frequencies for satellite communication is reaching its limits. The UltraAir system enables data exchange with lasers, in a network of ground stations and stationary satellites. With highly stable and precise optomechatronics, the laser communication terminals can send a thousand times more data and process the information ten times faster than current networks, achieving transfer rates of gigabits per second.

Airbus VDL laser satcom
Advanced optomechatronics enable laser communication between ground stations, satellites and fast-moving objects. Credit: Airbus

UltraAir is aimed primarily at military applications. Unlike radio signals, laser communication with a narrow beam is difficult to intercept or disrupt. Laser satellite terminals are therefore more compact and lighter, consume less energy and are more secure than radio communications. Military aircraft and drones will be the first users, via satellites such as Airbus’ Spacedatahighway network. In the longer term, commercial aviation will also start using the high-speed data links, Airbus expects.

VDL is now developing a demonstration model and prototype UltraAir device and preparing for volume production at VDL ETG in Almelo. To manufacture these complex terminals with mirrors and optomechatronics in volume, ETG is involved in the technology development from the beginning. In 2024, a prototype laser communication terminal will be ready for integration with an aircraft. A test flight with the industrialized prototype is planned for 2025.

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The development of UltraAir is made possible by investments from Airbus and VDL, ESA’s Scylight (Secure and Laser Communication Technology) program and the Nxtgen Hightech growth fund proposal, led by TNO and a group of Dutch companies.