Network for the Sky: Airbus successfully tests stratospheric 4G/5G defence communications with balloon demonstration

Airbus has successfully tested stratospheric 4G/5G defence applications with a high-altitude balloon demonstration. The technology tested, an Airbus LTE AirNode, represents a key part of Airbus’ secure networked airborne military communications project, Network for the Sky (NFTS). With this new generation of long-range communications in the sky, high-altitude platforms such as Airbus’ Zephyr will be able to create persistent, secured communication cells to relay information on a variety of different
aircraft platforms including helicopters, tactical UAVs and MALE UAVs (Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).
With the support of French and Canadian space agencies, Airbus flew and tested the communications solution in Canada at all altitudes up to 21km above the Earth’s surface, using a stratospheric balloon to create a high-altitude airborne cell site. In its payload, the balloon carried an Airbus LTE AirNode, which provided a 30km-wide footprint of coverage for private and secure communications. The Airbus team, equipped with two vehicles and two drones, tracked the balloon over 200km, exchanging 4K video between the different assets – simulating an ISR mission with real-time transmission. The data was sent via a private network at speeds from 0.5 to 4 Mbps, which is comparable to 4G/5G mobile communication.
Pushing the boundaries in delivering easily deployable communications, this capability will
significantly increase operational flexibility during air missions. An LTE AirNode allows
opportunistic, secure communications between different aircraft as they fly within range of
each other, where operations require permanent and powerful connectivity. It will deliver
highly secure communications for airborne assets, ground or maritime-based operations for
several weeks or months at a time – combining the persistence of a satellite with the
flexibility of a UAV. This type of ad-hoc network can be adaptable to all users – from
special forces to disaster relief scenarios.
Airbus unveiled its NFTS solution at the Farnborough International Airshow 2018. It
combines different communication technologies to form one resilient global mesh network,
allowing aircraft to be a fully integrated part of a high-speed connected battle space.
Today, individual aircraft, UAVs and helicopters continue to operate on separate networks
with limited bandwidth and interoperability, and often little resilience. NFTS will integrate
various technologies, such as satellite links with geostationary, medium and low Earth orbit
constellations, tactical air-to-ground, ground-to-air and air-to-air links, voice links, 5G mobile
communication cells and laser connections, into a single global secure network.

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