On 16th June 2022, Airbus hosted a roundtable at the defence and security global event, Eurosatory. Entitled “Command and control in high intensity combat thanks to laser communications”
Participating in the roundtable were Yoann Jezequel, Innovation Strategic Manager , Dr. Guy-Mael de Naurois, Laser Communication Roadmap owner at Airbus, Dr. Frédéric Lacoste, SatCom R&D project manager at CNES and Capitaine de vaisseau Jean-Philippe Vautier, Head of French military telecommunications & connectivity, French MoD General Staff (EMA).
Having 3 different extremely experienced opinions and visions at that roundtable allowed to discuss the operational, technical and industrial aspects of laser communications in defence and space. Here we outline some of the key discussion points made in the 45 minute session.
Importance of communication during military operations
As we know, communications are key to run a military operation. Therefore the spectrum and communication systems are facing many threats (i.e. jamming, electromagnetic tracking, intelligence, cyber, etc). Obtaining and maintaining secured communications during a conflict still remains extremely strategic.
Simultaneously, the military systems are generating more and more data. So, transferring huge amount of data from a ship or an isolated area to a datacenter in an operating base through legacy SatCom solutions is becoming more and more difficult.
Consequently, the future generation of military communication systems has to evolve and to be stealth, with a very high throughput and easy to integrate on a military platform. Laser communication technology has the potential to cater part of these operational needs.
What is a laser communication?
Laser communication consists of 2 terminals (telescope) pointing to each other while transmitting and receiving an optical wave.
Optical links have several advantages:
- Available spectrum
- Very high throughput (dozen even hundreds of Gbps)
- Discretion (very narrow beam, impossible to intercept)
- Resiliency (impossible to jam)
However, laser communications also has its limitations:
- Atmospheric turbulences and clouds
- Eye safety has to be managed (dangerousness level depending in many factors, wavelength, power, distance)
- The very narrow beam could be a limitation depending on the operational concept (no wide coverage)
Is the laser communication technology mature?
We can split the technology in two parts, the Line Of Sight (LOS) laser communication and the space laser communications.
For the LOS part, we can consider that the technology is mature. Some solutions exist have been used for many years in the civilian and military communications worlds.
For the space part, Airbus has been pioneering the technology for more than 20 years:
- For the Optical Inter Satellite Links (OISL), the technology is mature for many years with TESAT solutions as example and, the Airbus SpaceDataHighway service is a concrete commercial application.
- For the cross atmospheric solutions (bidirectional laser link from space to ground or ground to space), the technology has been maturing a lot these last few years, thanks to the CNES, Airbus and all of the partners of the CO-OP project. The Airbus TELEO optical payload will be launched in a few months on a geostationary orbit. Many space to ground laser communication tests will be carried out afterwards. We are now switching from space demos to concrete operational products in the short term.
SpaceDataHighway, getting space high resolution imagery in near real time thanks to laser communication
SpaceDataHighway™ (SDH) is a public–private partnership between ESA (European Space Agency) and Airbus that provides high bandwidth capability (1.8 Gbps) for LEO satellites via laser communication infrastructure since 2016.
SpaceDataHighway enables high-volume EO data, time-critical and sensitive information to be transferred outside the vicinity of ground networks, in turn supporting faster and longer access to space assets, securely transferring information.
Next year, Airbus will connect an airplane to the SpaceDataHighway through an aero laser terminal in the scope of the very innovative UltraAir project.
Laser communications and legacy radiofrequency solutions will cohabitate
Finally, after 45 minutes of passionate discussions and many questions from the audience, the panelists concluded:
- Laser communication solutions could look to cater for some operational needs, especially for transferring massive amount of military data and maintaining communications in a contested spectrum environment. But it won't replace legacy radio frequency solutions. It will be a complementary capacity.
- Part of the technology is already mature, especially fixed line of sight solutions on the ground and optical inter-satellite products in space.
- For the beyond line of sight laser communication, solutions are arriving at a good maturity level.
- Switch from space demos to real concrete operational products in the short term.