Li-Fi instead of Wi-Fi: Light Revolutionizes Communication on Board

Who better to judge the quality of a data connection on board an aircraft than passionate computer gamers? The last round of the “Air France Trackmania Cup” was held in an Airbus A 321 on the flight from Paris-Orly to Toulouse. A dozen gamers checked in to play the final of this construction and racing game in online mode on board. And the event was a world premiere: it wasn’t a conventional Wi-Fi network that was used to transmit data, but the new standard Li-Fi.
Li-Fi stands for “Light Fidelity” technology. While conventional Wi-Fi (“Wireless Fidelity”) uses electromagnetic waves for data transmission, Li-Fi uses light from LEDs. This innovation has several advantages, especially in terms of security: Since light signals cannot penetrate walls, reliable firewalls are created almost automatically. A Li-Fi network is also free of high-frequency waves, which reduces the likelihood of it interfering with other devices – a major advantage, especially on board aircraft. The speed of data transmission is high, currently up to 100 MB per second. In the future, according to the French aircraft equipment manufacturer Latécoère, it should even reach up to 1 GB per second – a real revolution in the sky.

In addition, Li-Fi uses lightweight fiber optic cables in place of significantly heavier copper. This lowers the weight of the aircraft, which in turn reduces fuel consumption. One disadvantage compared to Wi-Fi, however, is Li-fi’s short range of only about ten meters.

“This first flight with our Li-Fi technology is an important step towards introducing it on to the aviation market,” says Yannick Assouad, CEO of Latécoère. “We are convinced that Li-Fi will revolutionize in-flight connectivity within the next five years. I am especially proud of the fact that we have completed all the necessary certification procedures for the new solution and its integration into the cabin in record time.”

At the Paris International Air Show in early 2019, the partnership between Air France, the Latécoère Group and software manufacturer Ubisoft was announced, with the aim of organizing an on-board video game tournament in an aircraft cabin. However, the first rounds of gaming based on Li-Fi technology still took place on the ground.

“we are convinced that li-fi will revolutionize in-flight connectivity within the next five years. i am particularly proud that we have completed all the necessary certification procedures for the li-fi solution and its integration into the cabin in record time.”

yannick assouad, ceo latécoère group

The work involved in installing the technology in the Air France Airbus was relatively straightforward – the system works via the existing reading light installed above each passenger seat. Lightweight fiber optic cables are used for the connection to the central antenna, and the modem is integrated into the existing headrests with seatback screens.

The gamers on board are not the only ones who benefit from Li-Fi though: personal tablets, notebooks and smartphones can also be connected to the modem via Bluetooth or cable. One small disadvantage, however, is that the data cannot be streamed directly to the passengers’ devices, as Li-Fi always requires direct line-of-sight contact, which can only be guaranteed by the modem.

“Li-Fi data transmission will dramatically change and improve the bandwidth of communication in the cabin,” says Serge Berenger, Vice President for Research and Technology at Latécoère. “It will change passengers’ lives. They will benefit from new cabin services that we are not yet even aware of today.”

One of the intellectual fathers of Li-Fi technology is Professor Harald Haas from the LiFi Research and Development Centre at the University of Edinburgh. “The advantages really are huge,” he explained at the London Aviation Festival in fall 2019. “Wi-Fi is a technology that is inherently insecure and vulnerable to hackers, but if we use light instead, we can eliminate lots of problems. You don’t need to regulate or license the light spectrum and it can’t pass through walls.” Furthermore, the integration of lighting and data services into a single unit reduces both the complexity of the aircraft infrastructure, and energy consumption on board. In addition, unlike Wi-Fi, there are no restrictions on how many people can be connected to a network. But what happens if the light beam is interrupted for a short time? “No problem, the buffering means the system can handle it without any issues,” Professor Haas reassured us.

“wi-fi is a technology that is inherently insecure and vulnerable to hackers. but if we use light instead, like we do with li-fi, we eliminate lots of problems. you don’t need to regulate or license the light spectrum and it can’t pass through walls.”

professor harald haas from the lifi research and development centre at the university of edinburgh

All the experts agree: Li-Fi will not only revolutionize in-flight entertainment on board in the coming years – it could be used for all the aircraft’s communication and monitoring too. “Airbus is already working on solutions that give the cockpit Li-Fi access via light signals,” explains Valentin Kretzschmar, aircraft data specialist at Airbus. “Aircraft require a number of cables that add a lot of dead weight. Wi-Fi could solve this problem, but the risks involved require very careful consideration.”

In addition to Airbus and the University of Edinburgh, numerous other companies and organizations, including Germany’s Fraunhofer Society and NASA, are pushing hard for the implementation of Li-Fi. “25 years ago, we accessed the Internet at home with beeping modems. Now we are surfing silently, wirelessly, and soon, maybe, using light on-board aircraft,” says Eric Peyrucain of the Airbus Digital Transformation Office, summarizing the technology’s rapid development.

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Text by Behrend Oldenburg
Photos and graphics: Airbus, pureLifi, Latécoère Group, Air France

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