Although they are currently at low technology readiness levels, significant UK government focus and investment across four leading universities has already seen rapid development. Of the two, quantum sensing is the technology closest to being incorporated into our products, which would give us a significant boost in capability.
To take one example in quantum sensing, the theory is already proven for using ‘cold atom sensors’. Here atoms, in a vacuum, are super-cooled to a few microkelvin with lasers. When cooled to these levels they become ultra-sensitive to gravitational or electromagnetic fields. In essence, we cool the atoms to the point where the laws of quantum mechanics become dominant and the atoms act together in a way that is hyper-sensitive to outside forces, allowing us to sense objects more accurately than with current sensing technologies.
Because of this, we can also produce inertial navigation systems (accelerometers) that have the potential to provide accurate navigation without the need for GPS. Similar prototype sensors have already been trialled in archaeological survey work and could soon enable the detection of hidden enemy assets, such as tanks in thick undergrowth or improvised explosive devices.
The advantage of using gravitational fields is that you cannot shield objects from being detected, as you can for other detection systems such as radar. Additionally, the sensor acts passively, so provides no detectable output that could be sensed by an adversary.
In radar, quantum oscillators could replace the current crystal-based oscillators which rely on the transmitted waveform, enhancing our ability to cancel clutter. Quantum technology here would drastically increase precision and enable us to identify smaller objects at greater range.
In addition to radar systems, other quantum technologies can be used to detect individual photons, improving electro-optic sensing, even in low light levels or when vision is obscured by clouds or dust brown-outs.
Quantum sensing will allow us to sense even the best hidden objects whilst quantum communication can allow communication without the threat of interception. It will provide a significant advantage for those putting it into operation. Henry White, Lead technologist in sensing, BAE Systems.
The key challenge is to understand the capability of these technologies so that they can be integrated and ruggedised for maximum military advantage. For example, if we can sense objects from greater distances with greater accuracy, this feeds into additional options for platform design, offensive capabilities and sensor equipment locations. To do this, we are carrying out collaborative research with key universities who are leading quantum investigation and exploration: the University of Birmingham for sensing and timing; the Universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow for imaging; and the University of York for quantum key distribution in communications. Additionally, we are helping to establish a UK quantum sensing accelerator based at the University of Birmingham.