Qinetiq Flies UAS Using Laser Communications System

UK Army Boeing AH-64 Apache
UK Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter at the Salisbury Plain Training Area, England.
Credit: Alamy stock photo

LONDON—UK defense technology company Qinetiq has flown an uncrewed aircraft system (UAS) using a laser communication system, in what it says is the world’s first.

The company says the Free Space Optical Communications (FSOC) technology could enable covert, low-detection operations by such platforms.

Qinetiq noted that a bi-directional FSOC link was used as part of the communication system for the multicopter UAS, which was tested on the Salisbury Plain Training Area, England.

The FSOC technology was used to pass control commands and receive sensor and platform information.

FSOC technology could provide very high bandwidth, and low-probability-of-detection communications between ground stations and the air system compared with traditional radio frequency (RF) signals used for direct line-of-sight or beyond-visual-line-of-sight communication with UAS. Engineers also say the technology has a small logistical footprint.

The FSOC technology, Qinetiq suggests, has the “potential to negate the considerable investment that adversaries may have made in denying the RF spectrum.”

“This innovative use of FSOC builds on the earlier Crewed-Uncrewed Teaming demonstrations that provided UK and European firsts in the live airborne control of UAS,” says Dave Dixon, Qinetiq technical lead for the project. The trials, he said, provided further evidence that “teams comprising both humans and machines are an essential part of how militaries operate in the future.”

The project was part of the UK Defense Science Technology Laboratory’s Air Command and Control, Intelligence Surveillance & Reconnaissance and Interoperability project.

Qinetiq officials state that the project has been exploring methods of improving the digital interoperability and resilience of the communication systems that connect air platforms and associated capabilities.

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.