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In-flight internet access for airline passengers may be provided via laser systems as early as the middle of next year, the European Space Agency has claimed.
The 'UltraAir' concept stems from a collaboration between satellite manufacturer Airbus and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research.
The laser-based tech could replace existing satcom radio-frequency systems, whose bands are experiencing bottlenecks as demand for satellite services grows.
Ground-based tests of the system are expected to begin later this year in Germany, with the first in-flight trial, connecting down to Earth, expected for early-2022.
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It is expected that UltraAir will ultimately be able to reach data transmission rates of several gigabits-per-second and will be nearly impossible to jam or intercept.
This also makes the system good for military applications — such as relaying data collected by drones and linking aircraft systems to form an 'air combat cloud'.
The narrow beam of laser communication which makes it hard to intercept also means that terminals can be lighter and less power-intensive than radio.
UltraAir will also form part of the European Space Agency (ESA)'s 'ScyLight' programme, which is developing secure and laser communication technologies.
'Optical communication technologies — which use lasers – offer unprecedented transmission rates, data security and resilience, and are set to revolutionise satellite communications,' an ESA spokesperson said in a press release.
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'Optical communication is extremely hard to intercept because, in comparison to radio frequencies, it uses much narrower beams.'
'The laser communication terminal demonstrator […] will be designed, constructed and tested under laboratory conditions by the end of 2021.'
Early next year, the UltraAir system will be installed at the ESA's optical ground station on Tenerife for testing by establishing a communications link with the laser terminal aboard the Alphasat telecommunications satellite in orbit.
If this proves to be successful, the final step in mid-2022 will see the system equipped onboard an aircraft and put through its paces mid-flight.
UltraAir, an Airbus spokesperson said, will 'enable military aircraft and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to connect within a combat cloud.
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In addition, they continued, it will 'allow airline passengers to establish high-speed data connections thanks to the Airbus SpaceDataHighway constellation.'
The SpaceDataHighway is an evolution of the 'European Data Relay System' of geostationary satellites.
This constellation is presently used to relay data collected by observation satellites back to Earth in near-real-time — a process that would normally take several hours.
However, the UltraAir system could soon see the platform repurposed for commercial and military aviation purposes.
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