By minimizing the size of aircraft communications systems, designers can create more space for sensor payloads and other necessary equipment. In a rather novel approach to this problem, a small satellite-communications (satcom) system was recently reinvented as an aircraft communications system by using gallium-nitride (GaN) technology.

Recently, Northrop Grumman demonstrated this satcom system aboard a Firebird intelligence-gathering aircraft. The demonstration was part of an objective to provide aircraft operators with high-quality, real-time data in situations when a large, heavy communications system is not an option. The system successfully provided full-motion video to the ground, sending sensor data to a satellite and back to a ground station at a high rate of transfer—a “first” for a small communications system. For both the compact design and high transfer rate, Northrop Grumman credits its 0.2-μm GaN high-electron-mobility-transistor (HEMT) process.

According to the firm, that process can provide 10 times the power density of previously used gallium arsenide (GaAs) solutions to 60 GHz. The technology is fabricated on 4-mil.-thick, 3-in.substrates. With its high breakdown voltage and saturation electron velocity, Northrop Grumman says that it is ideal for high-power, high-frequency electronics.