Invisible light will keep drones in the sky for longer

Posted on 8 Jan 2013

New invisible light technology developed by EADS in Wales is facilitating the transmission of vast quantities of ‘mission critical’ data while airborne. Tom Moore reports.

When the military uses drones to find moving targets, such as recent terrorist-seeking missions in Afghanistan, a lag in data transfer can mean the individual or convoy is no longer where you think it is.

Military aircraft currently have to land to transfer the majority of data collected on missions. This is set to change.

Data from military jets and drones will be streamed using invisible light shone onto the aircraft in flight, transferring 50 times the amount of information that is currently possible every second.

This invisible light works in a similar way to a CD. Light is aimed at a modulator attached underneath the aircraft. The modulator reflects light back and this transmits the data held on the UAV back to operators.

Demonstrations of the light technology have taken place just six months into the £1m funded project, split equally between aerospace group EADS and the Welsh Government. Tests successfully streamed Highway to Hell by AC/DC from a UAV and to operators on the ground.

Thueux hopes to have a prototype of the invisible light communication system installed on a UAV by July 2013.

No, this is not a fanciful line from the latest sci-fi movie, but real technology being developed by a team of scientists from EADS Innovation Works in a quiet pocket of Wales.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as they are known by industry, are primarily used in reconnaissance missions to gain information about enemy forces in a theatre that would be risky to place a human being. But they are increasingly used in combat.

A series of drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and North Waziristan recently resulted in protests aimed at the US, which tribesmen believed were responsible for the raids. Eight more deaths attributed to drones were reported by Afghanistani newspaper Khaama Press this morning (January 8).

Boom technology

Politics aside, UAVs are big business. It is the fastest-growing aerospace sector according to a study by defence consultancy The Teal Group, with global sales expected to rise from £4bn to £7bn by 2020.

The UAV used to test the new communications system
The UAV used to test the new communications system

“The problem with UAVs is that mission data is very difficult to transmit to the operators on the ground as the radio frequency has a low bandwidth so can send only small amounts of data,” explains project leader at EADS Innovation Works Yoann Thueux.

That transmission technology is getting cheaper and UAVs can now gather greater amounts of data. And UAVs have a very important civilian function, increasingly being used to track fires and flooding. But UAV operations, whether military or civilian, “need that information straight away and can’t always wait to land,” says Mr Thueux.

Missions last from between two hours to a full day, and during that time the only data available to the ground-based operators is UAV status data, text and low quality imagery.  The new transmission technology could save lives as, deployed in rescue operations, it could instantly provide details of people trapped in rising floods or by fire.

This could banish the days of UAVs needing to land and spending 30 minutes downloading material that couldn’t be sent via radio links.

“The system increases bandwidth and does away with expensive and heavy radio equipment, making way for more sound and video capability,” explains Thueux. Light weighting UAVs would allow them to operate for longer periods as they would use less fuel.

“We have built a tracking system that allows us to point the laser in real-time. It will have a range of up to three kilometres [from light source to aircraft] within the next few years.”

Operators can’t land a drone in enemy territory, so it is hoped the potential range of the invisible light – potentially covering tens of kilometres – could reduce the valuable time taken to find a safe base to land and transfer data.

Bird down, data gone

There is another problem. A number of drones either have been shot down, with Iran claiming it has taken down two US-made reconnaissance drones in the last 15-months. There is a strong possibility that some data in these drones may not have been transmitted to operators due to the existing communication shortcomings.

Invisible light would stream data during the mission and not rely on the return of the aircraft to capture the information.

If that mission was meant to track an individual, terrorist or otherwise, the delay of data that could render counter operations is critical as the target may have moved in the meantime.

EADS laser
EADS laser

The light technology is not limited to drones. Manned military jets, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, currently used by the Austrian, British, German, Italian, and Spanish air forces, could also benefit.

A Eurofighter takes 40-minutes to take off again after landing, with 30-minutes of that time spent downloading mission data.  Thueux says that the aircraft “could transfer data simply by flying over the base and wouldn’t even have to land other than to refuel.” When it does land, the jet could return to action in less than 15 minutes.

No matter where the aircraft is, the UAV returns mission data, which could include live HD videos, back to the military base.

It would also keep highly sensitive information more secure when transmitting from a UAV to the ground, as beams of light are point-to-point and more difficult to intercept that radio waves that are broadcast into open air space.

To intercept invisible light would be much harder than radio waves as a tapper would have to locate the light to steal information, and would need similar technology between the ground base and the aircraft. “The ground station would be able to tell if the light was obstructed,” says Thueux. “So if someone was attempting to steal data, operators could shut the data transfer down immediately.”

“It would be hard if not impossible to intercept and it’s not a broadcast so it is trustworthy,” he concludes.

EADS expects to incorporate this technology into its defence arm Cassidian, which makes defence aircraft primarily sold in European markets.

However, the company believes that the technology could help to support a world without wires, with information shot across beams of light within offices and elsewhere.