Cosylab, Airbus & Cailabs: Laser Communications between Space and Ground
Today's roundtable that we're having with Airbus, Cailabs and Cosylab we will be addressing an increasingly important domain of optical or laser communications between ground in space. We will be looking at the very basic, starting with the very basics. We will look what are the challenges, what are the benefits, and we will also look what are the market trends and what the future is bringing for us. But before we go on, let me introduce the panellists and their companies. And I will start on your left with Mr Daniel Hendricks. Daniel is a
business development manager and Aerospace Engineering graduate from the Delft University of Technology. And he joined Airbus in 2007 and has been involved in launcher structures, Solar Arrays, Satellite Platforms, Thermal hardware, and since 2019 he has been responsible for business development on laser communications. And I think that Daniel's employer is so well known that I don't need to represent Airbus specifically. Next, Mr Olivier Jacques-Sermet is joining us from Cailabs. A French company based in Rennes.
And Olivier is an optical engineer by training and has spent more than 15 years in deep tech innovative, innovative photonics companies transitioning from R&D positions into international customer support, sales and business development roles. He joined Cailabs in 2020 to manage sales and business development of the fast growing TILBA product line dedicated to laser communication. And as you already figured out Cailabs is a deep tech company, an expert in Light Shaping solutions based on the patented MPLC technology. In the field of free-space laser communication Cailabs develops ground segments solutions from core turbulence compensation components to optical ground stations. Last but not least, we have Miha Vitorovic and Harshraj Raiji with us from Cosylab. Miha is a computer science graduate and is leading the space development department at Cosylab.
And Harshraj is a mechanical and space engineer. And he has been working as a mission analyst and a system engineer on various industrial and space missions. Just briefly about Cosylab. We are a provider of control system software solutions in various domains, including space, and our expertise lies in the ground segment, emission control systems onboard testing software, facilities, telescopes and much, much more. So just feel free to drop by our booth
and we'll explain more. So without further ado, let's start and to open to open the discussion. Let's briefly introduce laser communications in the space domain. So what are the main characteristics? The benefits? Perhaps, Raj, would you like to take this? Hi everyone. So yeah, basically laser communications
model its carrier waves, which are the upper end of the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. This means much shorter wavelengths right as compared to radio frequencies and shorter wavelength means two things. Shorter wavelength you pack data onto tighter waves right which means a much higher bandwidth as compared to radio frequencies, allowing for more data to be transmitted over a single link.
A shorter wavelength also means very narrow beam divergences. Right. This reduced beam spread means increase in intensity of the received power, of course for a fixed transmitter power.
Also, because of the high directionality of optical links, they are less prone to interception, jamming and eavesdropping, thereby making them inherently more secure. But also, as we know, the radio frequency spectrum is getting increasingly congested, right? Because it's constantly under attack by well resourced terrestrial applications, but also a number of people in the space sector, you know, this demand is increasing. That's why the RF spectrum licensing has to be overseen by some authorities, like the International Telecommunications Union, for example, right? Compare this with laser communications and where this is not the case yet. You don't need spectrum licensing yet. So this
translates to significant reduction right, in initial setup, cost and time. Thank you, Raj. So all those benefits sounded great. But this is a relatively new domain and there must be also some challenges to it. Not just technical, but also environmental and other ones. And perhaps Miha, would you
take this? Yeah, thank you. Hello, everyone. So yeah, there are quite a lot of challenges they have to do. I mean, in space, we have been able to establish communication over several million of kilometres, but on Earth, you know, we're struggling to get high speed communication over a couple of kilometres. And there are many reasons for that, you know. Like rain fog, weather in general background noise scintillation. And we can offset some of those, for example, for the background noise and sorry, yeah, and pollution, we can maybe put the ground station into remote areas. But then there are different challenges there, how to get the ground stations to those areas, you know, most of them have to do with logistics, how to get enough high speed connection, data connectivity to them, how to power them, and obviously how to get maintenance crews there when it's needed because you know, they can be up on some mountaintop or something. But
even if we put them on some remote locations, you know, the cloud cover can go over quite a large area. So then this, we need to mitigate in some other ways, maybe by having a network of optical ground stations over a very large area, or by having radio frequency fallback. Thank you. So perhaps if we go more to a high level
discussion, Daniel is a Business Insider. Can you give us a brief overview of the state of the art in free space optical? Or will it actually ever replace RF communication? It's a very good question. So let's get to the last question, which is a very relevant one. The answer is no, we don't see that optical will ever replace fully RF.
It's a misconception to ever think that. Yes, it is the future? Yes, we believe you will need it. Because RF won't be sufficient anymore. At some point, we don't know exactly when that is. So we follow the market, we follow our customers.
And of course, we try to create end to end solutions. I work in a portion of areas where we focus on the ground segment and aerial terminals. But all this needs to work together. And only when we find a solution that actually fits the market needs. That's when we will be ready for it.
Thank you. Thank you. So we are looking at a hybrid model in the foreseeable future with but with an increasingly important role in in optical, so perhaps Olivier, why do you think that the time for optical is now why is why is it the moment? Thank you, Tadej, for this revenue question. I will be a bit bolder than Daniel here by thinking that the future is already here. It's already now. And I think the the
inflection point for free-space optical communication. Now, thanks to the alignment of three planets, we have overcome some technical limitations. We'll go through them a bit later with Raj. And we've overcome many things, including atmospheric turbulence, which is a very hard one to tackle. We are seeing the
emergence of use cases from Earth observation that requires super large chunks of data brought back to Earth to telecommunications, and most sovereign and defence applications. And third, we have a steady stream of VC money to fund these infrastructures. So right now is the right timing for Laser com. Thank you. So talking about this infrastructure? Let's look perhaps a little bit more closely. What does an OGS
optical ground station actually consists of what subsystems are included? Raj, would you? Yeah, thanks. So, what an OGS basically has to do is collect the photons with a telescope and focus them onto a detector right where the light is converted to electrical signals, which are then further processed to recover the information actually embedded in the laser beam right. But in OGS is much more than just the telescope and detector. Because of the fine pointing requirements of this technology, you need a dedicated pointing acquisition and tracking subsystem right which consists of sensors and electronics, which steer and control in closed-loop, the active elements of the optical bench assembly, so fast healing mirrors, then you also need a subsystem to monitor and control the parameters of your transmitted laser right. And of course, you need to characterize the signals both for the receiver as well as for the transmitted beam, which is why you need a dedicated subsystem for that. In addition, your OGS also has to interface with various external system. So since as Maria was mentioning,
you know, this technology is highly weather dependent, right, so you need to talk to a meteorological station or weather station, of course. Yep. Also, your OGS needs to have good knowledge, let's say of the orbital elements and trajectory of your target satellite, which is why it needs to interface with a mission planning system or a satellite control centre? Yep, of course, if your audience is part of a network, it's it also needs to be hooked up to a network subsystem, right? So all the ground stations in the network can see and talk to each other. Yeah. And yes, I'm also aware that quite some work is being done on systems, which are meant to mitigate the effects of atmospheric turbulence.
So talking about atmospheric turbulence earlier, this is probably your field, can you? Can you explain how are we able to challenge that that issue? You're right, this is one of Canada's specialties. So, let me explain a bit more. The the effect of atmospheric turbulence is to actually scramble the signal that comes from the satellite to earth and to completely disturbed the the optical signal. So, what you need to do is analyze these disturbance and correct corrected before actually having a usable telecom signal. So the effect can be scintillation will
scramble it, there will be defocus, distortion, tilt, and everything. So you need to have very complex and fast systems to deal with it. So some historical solutions, using adaptive optics, which was works well comes from the imaging telescope world. So this is one way of dealing with it by analyzing the face of the signal and correcting with deformable mirrors. And now we have new, more innovative solutions based on specialty multiplexers and optically combiners that are able to do this in all integrated way. Thank you. So perhaps the next question for me, we heard that
there are multiple subsystems, and there must be some capable software needed in the background, running all this complexity and making it work? Yeah, thank you. Yeah, we see software could connect it to the ground optical ground stations, you know, it has two major dimensions. One of them is obviously transferring the data between the article ground stations to where it's needed. And the other one is basically integrating all the different subsystems that you mentioned, here to work as a single as a single device. So there will be many different devices and
subsystems that work here. And you need to you need to connect them together. And this is basically exactly what we've been doing in our past projects for the last 20 years. And, you
know, we see many similarities here. One of them is obviously, like I said, connecting and integrating different subsystems and sometimes exotic devices into one working system, then obviously, making sure of the very, you know, stringent and, and really, requirements on the reliability and the data transfer. Obviously, you want to have a robust system with as little downtime is possible. Because, you know, downtime costs money. And obviously, you know, we see things here, like, automated FDIR or something that enables you to minimize human intervention that is needed, sometimes, because the systems are in a dangerous environment. This is where we've
seen them in the past projects. But here basically, like I said, they will be in remote locations often, so it would be quite expensive to get maintenance crew there. Thank you. Thank you. So definitely a lot of complexity,
but also possibly also fragility, and how do you mitigate that to ensure uptime, the software player certain play an important role here? How can it help perhaps a question for Daniel? Thanks again. Yes, indeed, we heard the words complexity and all these different technologies, we have to call us understand very much these are all needed. And we see these things as indispensable to be in place they need to be developed.
We see them in various stages of development. I think all of us right to be very optimistic about the state of affairs. Yes, you could introduce optical combs in many levels already. We do see if you're going to a larger scale introduction, which is exactly what Airbus wants to promote and of course, wants to be in the lead. And I should say stay in the lead because Airbus
has been of course, paving the field already with EDRS displays data highway, getting the first optical inter-satellite linking in place. Now it's also on us we feel it's our responsibility to use that heritage to use that credibility to sustainably and commercially attractive get this technology are literally assembled into into either parts of other systems. So we want to partner with the cloud services providers, their end customers, there's various ways in which we can interact with customers and different levels. So this is especially what we want to do, and also happy very much that we can be here today to showcase that we're talking to partners like Cailabs and Cosylab because we understand that the technologies that these companies have and that they're developing is indispensable for what we want to achieve. Airbus does not have the intention to develop everything themselves ourselves. So we need partners like this. And I'm very happy with isa having promoted this
project that we're in together. Okay, thank you. So, the technology will ensure the reliability and uptime, but what needs to be done to get free space optical communication to a broader use large scale use, we need to limit cost. If you see nowadays, if you want to implement optical combs, it will be still relatively expensive compared to RF, which can still do pretty much the same thing. So you were looking at what the different types of customers want at different stages. An important thing I forgot to
mention earlier, when you talked about RF, some, some customers, you can guess in which fields, they would very much like to be discreet, they would not want you to know that they're actually communicating. If you only think about some of the earlier pictures we saw two weeks ago from Ukraine, those are pictures of destroyed radar stations. Those are just radio beacons. That's the first thing you aim for. Certain customers
therefore want to be discreet, they want to know that they can send something without somebody sensing that they're doing it for them bandwidth or the other like, like licensing is not relevant. But being discreet is very much important. But still cost is key to any customer. Thank you. Thank you. So perhaps the same or similar question to Raj, but from a more technical perspective. What would you think? Well, I think the technology needs to be proven, obviously, and rendered cost-effective, both for the space and ground segment. Thanks to projects like alpha and the European data relay system, we do have some hands on operational experience with optical inter satellite links. But for Space to Ground,
they're still quite little, which is why I think technologies such as adaptive optics or alternatives, signal encoding schemes, fast control algorithms should be further research developed and erased, and by the wayside is offering a good opportunity for this with the future opposite to mission. Right, because the theme of option two is optical communication, right? Yes, also, I think a collaborative approach should be adopted between members of the supply chain, right, and lessons learned should feed back into the design and refinement of operational concepts of such systems. This is why as Daniel mentioned, this is why Cosylab and Airbus are collaborating on this project together. And this is why NASA
supporting this development. Thank you, Olivier, what are your thoughts about bringing this technology into our everyday lives? I think I fully agree with my with my colleagues I've just said and really the one of the keys to go from a neat technology niche to actual business cases. And real economic equation for laser com is to get all the supply chain ready to get everybody to really scale-up from prototyping to production. And all this doing in good intelligence between the SMEs, startup companies, new space companies, and the big primes, all of these working together. So I see there are a lot of nice projects is a project between Cosylab and Airbus. We're involved in such projects we are we're
not doing the kernels project, to also demonstrate some links between space to ground. So all these demonstration projects are part of this scaling up demonstrating the use cases and then scaling up together to mass production. Thank you. Thank you. So let's switch to the next topic. So let's talk about the future. What are the main trends? What's
the what's what's in it for in the future for us? What are the main trends that will play a significant role in the future? Daniel, you've been in this business long enough. What's your take on this? With thanks to my colleagues, of course. Well, if you look at it, this we see the way in which we feel optical combs will be adopted a bit sooner than we had anticipated. You see an interest in quantum key distribution, which optical communication has a very inherited advantage. Something about quantum and I'm not an expert in quantum. So the need to meet one who
can actually explain to me all the details about quantum, which probably sounds familiar, but the inherent advantages of the ability to distribute keys like we do with optical comms, that's something that only laser communication can can do. So this is where we see already, the market picking up, I think at the next level will be at least that's what we're preparing for is direct to Earth constellation markets. If you look at what's now going on Starlink, having inter-satellite linking areas already doing it the Copernicus program and EDRS space development agency in the United States, they're looking at all into satellite link, the next step for that, and that's all low Earth orbit is to get that data down or directly. So we think that's the next market to actually pick up in a couple of years, perhaps, say, five to 10 years, we'll probably see that the capacity issues, the licensing issues, also for geo optical feeder linking, it will become interesting enough related to make a difference there, where the actual RF type of ground stations will no longer be sufficient. This also ties in with the fact that the
market will be different, the whole concept of optical is, of course, different. So there will be a new business model of where to place the stations, how to interconnect with them, who takes care of that infrastructure, all that still needs to be developed. So we're talking to all scores to all sorts of customers and parties who need to be in that. But the traditional parties are also looking how to deal with that RF is just inherently a different business model. Then when I
think we've we've, we've established what the place will be for for geo to Earth and ground to Geo, that's when I also think we'll see a change in arrow, aerial airborne terminals, which is still now something which we think might be going on in defence markets, but then quite specifically, but if you think about it, who's willing to pay enough euros on an irregular aircraft to have Wi-Fi, it's just something you expect, like in a hotel. So we find it very difficult to see a very big commercial market for airborne connectivity using lasers in the short term. So that would be the order if so how does actually Airbus actively respond or actually create those trends? Honestly, by carefully assessing what's happening, of course, we have a lot of feelers into the markets. And we want to
be very careful about how we approach it, you can shout off the rooftops, what you what you intend to do, don't make it a fake it approach. I feel we can't do that. It's not the type of company we are. So we carefully prepare, we carefully follow what our customers and intended customers want to achieve. And we want to be ready when the time comes. And we will be.
We were discussing with Miha previously about how Cosylab would be in the supporting role here. So we definitely see us supporting you there in a technological sense, you know, by providing software that can help you control those ground stations, and all the distributed systems there. But also some of the activities that we've been involved with these the in Europe with ESA we EGS CC which is a new and modern ground system, common court that they are developing, to be used by all the players in Europe for all the ground system needs. And definitely one of those needs, I
think will be the optical ground stations. Thank you. Thank you. So I think that we have effectively and productively used our time with the panelists. And we wanted to leave some five minutes or so for the Q&A from the audience. So please feel free to ask anything that could be on your mind. And we'll try to answer it. Hi, I'm Jeremy Jim Polly with Northrop Grumman. I'm interested to hear
what you think, you know, as we go from satellites that maybe have one gigabit per second up to 10 gigabit per second downlink up to, you know, a laser enabled maybe up to 100 gigabits per second, you know, raising one or two magnitudes orders of magnitude above the data rates is are there stressors on the infrastructure, you know, both at the ground side specific and maybe the ground side software, but as well as further downstream and processing and data storage, as you see, you know, this huge, huge increase in data rate. Who's taking this? Yes. There is still a big challenge in dev. I think your question is about where would the bottlenecks be and where would they remain? I think that's true. And I don't think anybody has the right answer yet. This is what I'm saying. We're preparing carefully, because you don't want to box yourself in into certain types of a solution that then no longer grants you any room to move. Fortunate things. Of course, when you go To the ground segment, you can always fix it, or we're used to launching stuff and then it's goodbye. But you're right, you're right, I don't have an
answer specifically on how we should deal with it, it just considered one of the remaining challenges. Anyone else wants to comment on that, just a very short comments on that, going from 10 gigabit per second to hundreds requires a change of technology optically, you have to go to coherent detection. And that creates challenges both in space on the type of lasers and components you have to put there and the reception. And this is where
turbulence and all these effects that we mentioned, become really, really problematic. And we're tackling them but it was there still, today, putting 100 gig in space is like the size of two washing machines. So we need to bring that down before it becomes like brought early use. Thank you. Watch that space, because next year, Airbus will be launching butter eight, with the Taleo system on it. Watch it. Thanks.
Any other questions? Gentlemen. Thank you. Hello, just about the environmental aspect. I've heard before that there is some things to be assessed. But I understand that optical communications with Lazar are much less impactful that RF frequencies is great. In terms of binary biological effects I don't know what RF does to ecological. Yeah, let's say the the impact on radio frequencies or with the what what do we use today now for RF communications. So with
respect to Lazar communications, when you go from the space to the ground? I honestly have no idea how to answer that. Problem. biological effect Johnson, where you question when you mentioned the impact of the like, the the waves on biological life are a couple of lasers for Yeah, for biological effects. We know, for instance, for the telecommunications, the spectrum from up to 20, CGH yards as something that needs to be assessed? I imagine. We know also that light technologies are lower. Okay, I understand the question. I don't think I can comment on
the RF spectrum. Because I think there are a lot of studies on that. And it really depends on manufacturers wavelength, how close you are to the source and everything. What what is sure is a laser, there is a comma. First is highly directive. So it
really limits the impact to a very thin line, it's really point to point. And second, the standards. And the way it's designed is really meant to be a safe. So using wavelengths that are not harmful to animals or human eyes, of course, except you put your eye in writing the laser, but it's really designed to be and harmful to aircraft also, because you don't to blind the pilots. So and different standards ccsds, FDA and others, which really are tackling this to make sure that laser comm doesn't bring a new sources of harm. So I don't know if it's better or worse than RF. I can comment on that. But all I can
say is that it's taken into account in the in the standards and in the by the industry. One final question. Otherwise, we're done. So thank you. Thank you again for joining us. Thanks to all the panelists for the interesting discussion roundtable. And feel free to meet us at our booth. Thank you. Thank you