Airborne Wireless Network set for ‘internet in the sky’

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Airborne Wireless Network (AWN) is developing the "Infinitus Super Highway".
Airborne Wireless Network (AWN) is developing the “Infinitus Super Highway”.

Airborne Wireless Network (ABWN) is on course to launch its “Infinitus Super Highway”, which it says could provide a high-speed broadband airborne wireless network by linking commercial aircraft in flight.

It has completed “proof of concept” flights showing that high-speed data could be sent successfully from aircraft-to-aircraft, aircraft-to-ground and vice versa and has more tests planned for early 2018.

These will send and receive broadband signals from one aircraft to another, effectively using commercial aircraft as “mini-satellites” to create a high-speed broadband airborne wireless “mesh” network.

It would also be “self-healing” as bad weather would automatically mean data transfers would take place with another “node”.

Earle Olson, ABWN’s VP Industry Affairs, said: “Our primary business in life is not to be another Gogo, Global Eagle or other inflight connectivity (IFC) provider. In fact, by having our equipment on board we would be able to provide a high-bandwidth solution to existing IFC providers.

“We will provide a complementary service. Our main purpose is to provision a wholesale broadband network capacity.

“Our end goal is to fit around 2,500 aircraft in North America, which will give significant, robust, up-time with 500 or so ground stations. At any one time around 1,300-1,500 aircraft would be airborne and the others would be in transition,” Olson said.

Airborne Wireless Network

In May 2017, ABWN used two modified Boeing 767-300 jetliners in the skies over Roswell, New Mexico, USA, proving the viability of an airborne meshed network.

It says its “constellation” would be configured as a fully-meshed network – a network topology in which each node (aircraft), relays data for the whole network. One big advantage is the much lower latency compared with geostationary satellite connections, plus lower weight and cost.

ABWN’s business case is to use its own custom earth-stations to access the terrestrial fibre-optic network.

Though not a network requirement, if practical, the company says it would consider possible cooperation with existing satellite operators.

But what sort of speeds might such a network be capable of?

“Our demonstration test in Roswell, New Mexico, at the end of May 2017 showed we could support air-to-ground, ground-to-air and air-to-air streaming video connections at around one Gigabit,” said Olson.

“We were somewhat limited to 1Gbps by the capacity of a switch and could have managed more. We are also heading towards demonstrating 10Gbps capacity using ‘free space optics’ and multi-Gigahertz bandwidth,” he said.

ABWN says it plans its first ever radio-managed aircraft-to-aircraft high-speed laser-link test in early 2018.

Laser-based communications

In August, Airborne Wireless Network officially entered into a design and manufacturing services agreement with Mynaric (formerly ViaLight Communications), a developer of laser-based high-speed communication products. Mynaric will assist in the development of Airborne Wireless Network’s hybrid radio frequency laser based communication system.

Olson said that it will use an “eye-safe” frequency/wavelength, but wouldn’t go into the fine detail.

Lasers with emission wavelengths longer than around 1.4 μm are often called “eye-safe”, because light in that wavelength range is strongly absorbed in the eye’s cornea and lens and therefore cannot reach the significantly more sensitive retina.

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“We expect to be able to achieve robust connections up to 240 nautical miles between aircraft using the laser-based or free-space optic system,” Olson said.

He said ABWN also expects to see 10Gbps laser-based connectivity at the outset, and up to 100Gbps as the system matures.

“Theoretically, as it is light, you could have terrabit capacity eventually,” Olson said.

One way of achieving this might be to use parallel, multiple beams running at different wavelengths. The aircraft could have laser receptors, looking forward and aft, side to side.

Mynaric laser terminals

Mynaric was engaged by ABWN to develop, design, test and manufacture a custom hybrid synchronised laser-based communication system to link neighbouring aircraft and/or ground stations.

It says this will provide a low-cost, broadband wireless communication infrastructure by using and modifying existing, small, lightweight, low-power relay station equipment that will be installed on-board aircraft.

On December 5 ABWN announced Mynaric had arranged for the shipment of two flight laser terminals and associated components.

The confirmed shipment will allow ABWN to execute its next phase of testing, to conduct a two-plane test utilising two Cessnas or equivalent aircraft The Cessna tests will build upon ABWN’s successful May 2017 proof of flight concept test.

The primary purpose of the May 31 flight tests was to prove the functionality of ABWN’s meshed network, as this would allow it to accurately pinpoint the location of each aircraft, and share its flight-data among other aircraft within the assigned cluster(s) of 10-30 aircraft.

The data provided by the airborne “meshed radio web”, would then be used to manage the free-space laser overlay, thereby creating the first long-range mesh, capable of many terabits per second.

As there would be up to 35,000 “satellites”, ABWN’s global network could provide tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Terabits of data to wherever it is needed.

20-aircraft test

A 20-aircraft test, with 13 airborne at any one time, and three ground stations is planned for early 2018.

“At 35,000 feet you don’t need that many aircraft to provide a viable system over a significant geographical region,” said Olson. “To provide a ‘five nines’ level of reliability we need around 2,500 aircraft. But you still have a robust system with 500-700 aircraft.”

ABWN says it plans to get type certification in place from 2019 (probably starting with the Boeing 737NG) with the system’s global rollout expected to start in 2021.

The company is also considering how the system could be deployed in other parts of the world, as well as being used on shipping and oil drilling platforms.

It could also be used to supply high-speed internet access in remote areas that have previously been seen as too expensive to provision.

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