A revolutionary new laser system, dubbed HYPERION, promises to improve the transmission of data from aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and low orbiting satellites to ground stations.

The optical system, developed by a team of Innovate UK researchers, has been designed to send critical information more securely, rapidly and efficiently than traditional radio frequency (RF) methods.

The eye-safe system is able to aim lasers, with a wavelength of 1,550 nanometres, up from the ground towards an aircraft, which is fitted with a special reflector which captures the beam. It then modifies the beam with the latest data to be transmitted and sends it back to the ground for decoding and analysis.

A suggested application of HYPERION is to allow UAVs involved in disaster monitoring, surveying, search and rescue, and other humanitarian projects to quickly offload detailed image data back to the ground for analysis. The system could also be applied in future airline systems to transmit vast amounts of technical and performance data collected by on-board sensors to ground stations on approach to the runway. This process could help speed up necessary maintenance and significantly cut turnaround times.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 10.02.10“This […] research is leading to exciting developments in aerospace and communications. It will potentially make aircraft and unmanned vehicles better connected and more resilient to outside interference,” said Professor Philip Nelson, chief executive at UK research and training agency EPSRC.

Nelson refers to traditional RF communications, which can be vulnerable to interception and jamming as they rely on an extremely crowded part of the electromagnetic spectrum. As this space continues to grow, with ever increasing volumes of data needing to be transmitted, alternatives must be developed.

A concept HYPERION design has now been successfully tested in-flight at a range of 1km, but the research team is working to extend this distance in future models. It is hoped that the system could become commercially available over the next three to five years.

The news of the HYPERION system follows Facebook’s announcement of its plans to deliver internet connectivity via drones through air-to-ground laser links, enabled by lightweight gimbals which hang beneath the aircraft.