While pondering the increased need for aircraft connectivity as a result of recent news stories, we naturally recalled the S Band efforts of John Larkin, Ku Band activity by Row 44 and Panasonic, and recent Ka Band work by ViaSat. This got us thinking – “Where can this all end?” Lasers!

Why not? Transmitting and receiving equipment is smaller than radio hardware for the same range, less power is needed for given data rates and range, higher data rates are definitely available (by a factor of 1000 or more), and security is definitely improved by a point-to-point connection. No doubt, weather presents problems below 9000 meters but links to a satellite (LEO, MEO or GEO) or another aircraft has great data potential if the technology to accurately point the transmitter to the receiver exists, or will exist in the not to distant future. A search of the technology hints that there is a LOT of classified governmental research in this area but we got our first hit from an ARTEMIS news release in Science Daily.

Back in 2006, Artemis (ESA) successfully relayed airborne optical links, established over a distance of 40,000 km during two flights at 6000 m and 10,000 m. This was apparently a first. A French business jet was equipped with laser hardware, and from the geostationary height of 36,000 m, the Artemis satellite established a data link between them. We think this was an astounding achievement. The news release noted it was equal to the feat of sighting a golf ball in Brussels while siting in Paris! By the way, Artemis is a story in itself but we don’t have space here to do it justice.

A search of the airborne laser technology seems to point at optical hardware that is about 1 cubic foot in volume, weighs under 50 lbs, uses under 100 watts of power while delivering data rates of over 1 Ghz/s. Entertainment content may or may not be financially workable, high passenger and crew data rates for communication, Internet and airplane data seem well within the reach of the system capability- – not to mention aircraft-to-aircraft communication and data relay. Obviously, one satellite has to serve many (or all) planes under it. However, it might be easier to steer a laser beam than a microwave antenna. This would seem to require great onboard beam agility by both aircraft and satellite.

Another data search dug up some interesting testing in the aircraft/laser arena. This one is from MIT: “A seven-month rapid development project of the Advanced Lasercom Systems and Operations Group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory culminated in the successful demonstration of a multi-gigabit-per-second air-to-ground optical data link. Communication to a ground station was achieved over nearly horizontal links at aircraft ranges out to 60 kilometers, in spite of severe atmospheric channel disturbances. By implementing coding and interleaving on the link and by employing a receiver with spatial diversity, the research team attained error-free data transfers of 100-gigabyte imagery files. This achievement opens a new path for high-bandwidth connectivity between airborne sensor platforms and the end users of sensor data.” The interesting thing here is the work on transmitting data through weather. While we thought the radio link would still be employed for the earth-satellite link, transmissions to the aircraft would be by laser; however, there seems to be efforts by technologists to make all the links laser-based.

The payoff: High data rates, low weight, low power consumption, small size – it is coming. This Hot Topic is designed to get you thinking because there is one thing you can count on in connectivity – Go big or go home!

Some related links:

ESA Portal – Slowly but surely – Artemis heads towards its working position


Another World First For Artemis: A Laser Link With An Aircraft

Free-space optical communication – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

If you heard about the mayhem in the famous Bellagio fountain last week, the image of Sir Richard Branson riding, or dumping, a jet ski in the water in Las Vegas is probably permanently etched in your brain. The event honored the 10 year anniversary of Virgin Atlantic’s non-stop flight service to Mcarran airport from the UK. As he usually does, Virgin’s Sir Richard, prompted a stunt to mark the event and we will give you some coverage of that madness next issue. The Virgin investment of $2 Billion in new planes and new service from Manchester airport, as well as, the 10th anniversary of the service to Las Vegas, were reason enough for the celebration.

The IFE story belongs to Panasonic because of the $70 Million invested by Virgin in the Panasonic eX2 and eXPhone System (via AeroMobile) on 10 new A330’s. The aircraft begin delivery next February, and initially, the hardware will be installed via retrofit. However, Virgin is pressing both Boeing (B747) and Airbus (A330) for future line fit (TC’d) solutions. The news conference last week (shown above) brought together Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson – President, Steve Ridgeway – CEO, Greg Dawson – Director Communications together with Panasonic’s Charles Oglivie – Executive Director, and Rossi Ralenkotter – President Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority.

Obviously excited over the fact that the Las Vegas destination was fourth on VA’s revenue generation destination list, he was very enthusiastic about the Panasonic system. Said Sir Richard, “The possibilities now are unlimited. We want mobile phones to be on silent, but there will be light alerts at the passenger’s seat when a call comes in. We might eventually establish silent zones if need be but we’ll see how things go. This means the business men and women will never be out of touch. Our train riders can add four work hours to their work day when traveling with us by rail. It will be no different in the air.” IFExpress talked to the VA and Panasonic representatives and it was clear that the new non-stop A330’s that will fly from the UK to Las Vegas are an important part of both the Las Vegas growth plan and the future of Virgin Atlantic.

The “take-away” here is that Panasonic is actively engaged with Virgin Atlantic today to bring their whole suite of phone-TV-Internet services to the aircraft – initially via Inmarsat and eventually via their broadband network. Paul Margis told IFExpress that they presently have consigned Ku-Band transponders in their network that cover the world routes and planes are operating with the capability today. It is obvious that Sir Richard is a fan of technology as he noted passenger preference for using connected devices; “Passengers will be able to email, make phone calls, use their iPhones to talk and text message.” Virgin Atlantic’s existing fleet of of 33 wide-body aircraft have to look pretty good to Panasonic and we expect that the negotiations are underway to upgrade their whole fleet. Time will tell.

Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out the Aeromobile release in this issue of IFExpress and here is more about Panasonic and Virgin Atlantic as well as the latest release from Panasonic.