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Business

Yottabytes getting the jump on pirates

Laser communications technology can enable data transmission on a far greater scale than is currently possible. (Courtesy of Airbus)

TOKYO -- The year is 2050. An employee at Lloyd's of London is sitting at her desk observing real-time images from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) the company deployed to follow a cargo ship it had insured. She picks up the phone and contacts the ship's owner.

     "Sir, I see a fleet of pirate ships on the course ahead of you." Scrolling down a list of options, she says, "I can offer you two choices. You can continue on this path, but your insurance will go up. If you accept our suggestion to divert, we can discount your premium."

     Such a scenario would require enormous amounts of data to be transmitted. Not megabytes, but terabytes, petabytes, exabytes, zettabytes and even yottabytes. Transmission on such a scale would not happen on the ground, where data traffic is already congested, but in space. After 30 years of preparation, the European Space Agency and Airbus Defence & Space, a division of Airbus Group, have established the foundation for such transmission: the Space Data Highway, a constellation of satellites connecting UAVs and earth observation satellites. Laser communications between the satellites will enable real-time data transmission.

    What would a world of such copious amounts of real-time data look like?

     If an oil trader had access to real-time footage of, for example, an attack on a Nigerian oil refinery, he would be able to predict the effect on oil prices more accurately than someone acting on speculation. Weather forecasters would be able to follow the path of a storm more accurately and offer live analysis. Commodity traders could assess the damage a storm would have on agriculture, and reassess as it builds.

World of danger

The world is a dangerous place, and trade routes are fragile. Half of the world's oil travels through seven major maritime choke points, including the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Aden. In 2012 alone, there were 297 pirate attacks, which caused a total of $12 billion in damage. There were also 28 hijackings. Having UAVs and observation satellites that provide real-time data would significantly reduce such risks.

     Representatives from Airbus visited Japan in May to invite Japanese high-tech companies to join in the development of the Space Data Highway and help expand the market.

     "The Japanese excel in taking something and making it better," said Akos Hegyi, head of Space Data Highway at the communications, intelligence and security unit of Airbus. "We want help from them in making the components more performant, smaller and more affordable." The company was chosen by the European Space Agency as the primary contractor for designing, building, operating and co-financing the system infrastructure.

     According to Hegyi, the U.S. started a similar project in the 1980s, then canceled it and only recently restarted. The Japanese are also aiming to develop the technology from scratch to build a similar infrastructure in space. "Why spend billions of dollars trying to achieve what has already been achieved? We would much prefer to cooperate with Japan in developing the next generation of technology," he told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview in Tokyo.

     Currently, data transmission through space relies on radio waves. Most observation satellites pass over a given point on Earth only once every 90 minutes. Malaysian officials had to rely on six-day-old photographs to deploy a rescue team after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared from radar screens in March 2014. "With laser communications, you can receive pictures in five minutes," Hegyi said.

     The core of the Space Data Highway's space infrastructure will be two geostationary satellites, with the first to be launched in August this year. The second is slated for launch in 2017. The two satellites will provide direct coverage from the east coast of the Americas eastward to Singapore.

     To provide 360-degree coverage of the globe, a third geostationary satellite in orbit over the Pacific would be necessary. Here is where Airbus is looking for Japan's help, both in finance and in technology.

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