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UK quantum hub meet learns how military is developing applications

17 Jun 2016

Such technologies "will improve the accuracy of measuring time, frequency, rotation, magnetic fields and gravity."

Business professionals from more than 50 organisations gathered with academics from the UK’s Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology this week to discuss emerging quantum technologies and how partnerships could benefit various sectors of industry. The Hub is based at Birmingham University, but is part of a national network based at various UK universities.

Quantum sensors are expected to improve the accuracy of measuring time, frequency, rotation, magnetic fields and gravity, with particular benefits for real world applications such as military sensing, geological investigation, “flash” share trading, optical communications and computing.

The Hub in Birmingham is working to transform laboratory-based research into technology. Researchers are developing smaller, cheaper, more accurate and energy efficient components and systems to build and sustain a supply chain which will have a potentially transformative impact across business and society as a whole.

Quantum in action

At the conference, which featured a wide range of academics, industrialists, military and government representatives, a presentation on the development of various quantum-based practical applications was made by Dr Stephen Till, Research Fellow at the UK’s Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL). He told the conference, “We are currently in the second quantum revolution. The first quantum revolution gave us new rules governing physical reality. The second quantum revolution is taking these rules and using them to develop new technologies. It will have have a similar transformative effect as the first.

”The UK is developing a quantum technology-based industrial base, which is an academia, industry and cross-governmental effort with a current value of approximately £350 million [$500 million]. There will also be a rebid for a second five-year tranche of funding for a 10-20 year development program, currently in preparation.”

Dr Till gave some specifics on recent developments by DSTL quantum-based research and development projects, which involve a range of partners including universities and photonics focused companies: “We have two development programs – a gravity imaging program, and a quantum imager. DSTL’s academic partners are the University of Birmingham, Imperial College London, and National Physical Laboratory; the commercial partners are e2v and M-Squared lasers.

”The concept of the imager is to take an array of gravity radiometers, which use cold atom physics, measure a gravity gradient across a region of space and by inverting the data can reconstruct the density profile, which has generated that gravity field,” he said.

“The Quantum Navigator involves developing the component sensors that comprise a navigation system, based on clocks, accelerometers and gyros,” Dr Till continued. “All of this should all mature to at least TRL 4 [technology readiness level] by 2019. But parts of it are already much closer to maturity now. In particular, clocks gravimeters, a gravity gradiometer and an accelerometer, all of which we hope to see at TRL4 by February 2017.

Military detection

So what benefits could be expected from gravity sensing and imaging?

Dr Till explained, “Apart from civil engineering, such as identifying geological faults and features, the military could inspect buildings, understand their structures from the outside. Which is important if one wishes to review a building that is occupied by people you’d rather weren’t there. We can also detect underground tunnels and bunkers and perhaps detect fissile material – it’s frightening the amount of fissile material that disappears each year,” he continued.

He explained how future quantum based systems will significantly improve detection capabilities, especially underwater: “Currently, detection in the underwater environment, which is based on inertial navigation sensors, existing systems can be in error by as much as one nautical mile over a 24-hour period. But we expect future quantum version of this equipment to deliver about 1000-fold improvement in performance.”

“The push for all of this is to develop compact small weight and power demand systems, ultimately to be man-portable devices; we believe that at least three and possibly five orders of magnitude improvement might be possible with such accelerometers and gyros – and all of these need to be engineered into a system if we are to have a working navigator.”

He pointed out that under the UK Government’s terms of investing in such research and development, the beneficiaries must demonstrate the value of their work: “There is now another driver to quantum technology developments, which is the requirement that all government technology departments contribute to UK wealth creation. So we are very supportive of developing and maintaining a quantum community to give us a world-leading position in what we believe could be a £1 billion a year industry.

DSTL is also supporting technology transfer to industry, through four applied physics project with Innovate UK and through the recently announced £800 million / 10 year MOD Innovation initiativ, which was announced in the UK’s 2015 Strategic Defence Review.

Atomic clocks

Dr Till also gave a detailed worked example of quantum technology being developed into systems: “portable atomic clocks will be a real game-changer for the military,” he said. “In this area, there is early adoption by the MOD, which will later see wider civilian use. Development is currently at TRL 4-5, with the aim of achieving TRL 8-9 maturity within five years.

"We could use these portable atomic clocks in synchronisation and battle space management applications in such critical areas as: information activities, artillery, manoeuvres, communications, navigation and sensor subsystems. Portable atomic clocks would allow us to relax our reliance on GPS.” He concluded, “We believe we are standing on the brink of the next mobile device revolution.“

About the Author

Matthew Peach is a contributing editor to optics.org.

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