Airbus and VDL Announce Partnership to Develop UltraAir

By John Pullen | January 13, 2023
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Airbus and VDL Group are partnering to develop and manufacture UltraAir, a laser communication terminal for aircraft. (Photo: Airbus)

While the aviation industry has maintained a consistent focus on the creation and implementation of new aircraft designs, other advancements in the industry are promising to bring great value to the aviation world. European aircraft manufacturer Airbus and high-tech Dutch producer VDL Group have just announced a partnership to design and build UltraAir, a laser communication terminal. With the support of development from Airbus and the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), the organizations hope to have a prototype and a first flight test completed by sometime next year.

UltraAir is a laser communication terminal with improved capabilities that make the more efficient transfer of data and information possible. Airbus has been developing the system since April of 2021 and has designed it to utilize laser links between a set of satellites in orbit and terminals on the ground equipped with a precise optical mechatronic system. 

“Laser communication technologies are the next revolution in satellite communications (satcom).” (Photo: European Space Agency)

UltraAir promises to address many of the challenges the use of radio frequency bands for communications present by having improved anti-jamming, a lower chance of interception and secure data transfers of 1.8Gbit/s. Additionally, it will allow the sharing of larger amounts of data through its use of the SpaceDataHighway satellite constellation, a project supported by Airbus and the European Space Agency that has allowed for thousands of connections since its conception over five years ago. As traditional satellite communication (satcom) radio-frequency bands struggle from more bottlenecks (which occur when they cannot handle the current volume of data due to inadequate handling capacity), the improved capabilities of UltraAir promise to be a step forward for communications in the aviation industry.

By next year, Airbus and VDL Group will further develop the prototype so it will be ready for integration with a test aircraft. VDL will be responsible for designs used during production and for manufacturing several critical systems needed to operate. Once completed, Airbus and VDL hope to have this further industrialized prototype flight tested by 2025.

UltraAir offers many opportunities to improve various sectors of the aviation industry. Features like its use of the SpaceDataHighway will allow both unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) and military aircraft to connect in a multi-domain combat cloud, which will allow aircraft in the armed forces to combat more collaboratively and thus more efficiently. Beyond military aviation, the system could also be installed on commercial aircraft, which could give airlines the opportunity to offer high-speed connections to the flying public.

Airbus, TNO, and the VDL Group’s collaborative effort could bring further improvements to communications, regardless of the industry sector utilizing it. Laser communication can move 1,000 times more data than traditional satcom radio-frequency bands, and can do so 10 times quicker as well. Laser links have a narrower beam, making it much more difficult to be intercepted. Thanks to this, the laser terminals on the ground are lighter and more efficient, all while offering security better than radio.

The advancements found in UltraAir could offer the improved communications vital to maintaining the aviation industry’s safety and efficiency.

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