A laser-based system that allows aircraft and drones to efficiently transmit data from the air to the ground could be used in disaster situations to bolster rescue efforts.
The system, called Hyperion, is being developed by a team at Oxford University and is said to offer major benefits compared to traditional radio frequency data transmission systems currently relied on by the drones sector.
Those systems are susceptible to interception, jamming and rely on an increasingly crowded part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
However, Hyperion allows drones engaged in disaster monitoring, surveying, search and rescue and other humanitarian missions to send detailed images back to a base station on the ground, while eliminating security concerns and slow data transmission rates.
The technology could also enable airliners of the future to offload huge amounts of technical and performance data gathered by sophisticated on-board sensors to ground crews during final approach to an airport, speeding up maintenance procedures and cutting turn-round times.
The system works by aiming a laser with a wavelength of 1550 nanometres up from the ground towards the target aircraft, which is equipped with a specially designed reflector that captures the beam, modifies it with the data to be transmitted and then sends it back to the ground where it can be decoded and read.
A proof-of-concept system has already been successfully tested in-flight. The range of the system is currently 1km, but work to extend this range is underway.
Professor Philip Nelson, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which funded the project, said: “This EPSRC-funded 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.”
Professor Dominic O'Brien, who has led the Oxford team, says: “Hyperion has the potential to enable extremely lightweight, low-power data terminals for unmanned aerial vehicles, allowing flight-time to be extended, or smaller aircraft with enhanced capabilities.”
Ford recently demonstrated its driverless car technology which uses lasers to scan the vehicles’ surroundings in order to create a 3D map that is used to avoid obstacles and navigate roads with a high level of accuracy.