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Developing Aircraft Photonic Networks

Tags: Air

State of the Art - Background

Modern aircraft are considered to be a paradigm of technological achievement. In practice, the long design time associated with the development of new aircraft means that systems employed on a new airframe are often several years behind the true state of the art. This is particularly true of rapidly evolving technologies such as computer hardware or communication systems. This technology lag is further compounded by stringent safety and certification requirements which favour an adaptation of existing system solutions rather than a step change in technology.

The dramatic advance in the use of fibre optics in terrestrial communication and datacom systems in the last 20 years has resulted in networks which outperform even the latest aircraft equivalents by orders of magnitude in terms of speed, channel count, modularity, flexibility and packaging miniaturisation.

The primary objective of DAPHNE is to enable the exploitation of key terrestrial optical networking technology, with its associated performance advantages, in future European aircraft and systems. The project will adopt key components and network technology from commercial markets, and develop and validate future aircraft networks to take European aircraft systems capability well beyond the current state of the art and make them suitable as a platform for future development.


Aircraft data networks have increased dramatically in complexity and functionality throughout the history of powered flight. Modern networks support a large number of nodes with a wide range of span lengths, bandwidths and protocols. Existing systems, based on copper conductors, have become more complex, larger, heavier and more expensive, and this trend is set to continue. A coordinated step change to fibre-optic technology would reduce size, weight and cost, and improve the modularity, flexibility and scalability of the network. Moreover, fibre optics brings other implicit advantages including EMC immunity and improved security.

The boom in photonic technologies for terrestrial telecoms markets has provided a rich source of techniques and components, which may be adapted for aerospace environments. However, research and development work is required to bring the advantages of photonic networks to aircraft systems.

The DAPHNE consortium has identified cabin systems as the most immediate application area for implementing photonic networks. Here the need for high flexibility, re-configurability, high bandwidths (driven primarily by information-to-the-seat), large number of nodes, and the increased use of composite fuselage structures mean that the technology and business case for photonic networks is compelling.

Description of Work

The DAPHNE work plan is split into key tasks as follows:

- Existing and future aircraft network requirements will be studied to establish the frame of reference for the project.

- System integration concepts will be developed and architectures analysed and modelled, considering aircraft-level communications as a whole, with appropriate network layouts for generic airframes. Network modelling will assess the performance of the integrated systems and model practical network performance.

- Network hardware will be developed, prototype components and harnesses will be built and tested. Network modules will be constructed, and mock-up aircraft equipment prepared for integration.

- Components and modules will be integrated into realistic aircraft network systems. The prototype modules will be integrated into aircraft network mock-ups to represent different aircraft types and system applications.

- Extensive system testing will validate the compatibility of individual components and systems, including quantified data transmission across the integrated network physical layer(s) and critical system safety testing.

- Dissemination and standardisation of the results is essential to ensure widespread uptake of the project results. DAPHNE will disseminate the project aims and results to the aircraft industry, as well as actively pursue the standardisation of the technology developments.

Expected Results

The key outputs from the project include:

- Quantitative network analysis and modelling of the physical layer to optimise the efficiency of the networks in terms of physical characteristics, optical performance and network functionality as well as reliability, availability and maintainability.

- Active and passive components optimised for aircraft environments. The problems of encapsulation and in-harness mounting, maintenance and repair considerations will be addressed, including the self-testing of active components and EMC/lightning survivability.

- Aircraft electronic LRU housings, designed to take into account the small footprint of photonics devices, component mounting and the effect on the environment into which they will be installed

- Physical environmental testing will capture commonly recognised fault-causing mechanisms based on real observed instances from current generation fibre-optic installations on fixed and rotary wing airframes.

DAPHNE inter-module infrastructure