Drone-based, mobile quantum network promises unhackable communications
The network, which is being developed together with quantum optic-based networking technology company Qubitekk and the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, includes a ground station, drones, lasers and fiber optics to share quantum-secured information. The project is seen as representing a new stage in the development of two technologies – quantum communications and drones or UAVs.
The researchers are collaborating with the U.S. Air Force to combine expertise from academia, including the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, government and industry with the future potential to scale up the project for larger applications with larger aerial platforms, as well as other ground and maritime platforms.
“The combination of quantum communication and unmanned aerial systems or UAS in this project represents an important advance in the Air Force’s efforts to create fieldable quantum systems for the warfighter,” says A. Matthew Smith, Ph.D., a senior research physicist at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Information Directorate. “Additionally, the potential of secure communication from a portable quantum communication UAS in contested environments represents important future capabilities for the Air Force.”
Quantum distribution provides a secure communication method for exchanging information between shared parties in a way that guarantees security. This phenomenon involves a pair of particles of light or photons that are generated in such a way that the individual quantum states of each are indefinite but correlated such that the act of measuring one instantaneously determines the result of measuring the other, even when they are at a great distance from one another.
This phenomenon was referred to by Albert Einstein as “Spooky Action at a Distance.” Einstein noted that quantum mechanics should allow two objects to affect each other’s behavior instantly across vast distances as if the two are connected by a mysterious communication channel.
FAU’s contribution to the project and its student involvement in the technology, say the researchers, is analogous to threading the eye of a fine needle using fiberoptics and co-propagating wavelengths that includes a near-infrared or invisible beam at the single-photon level. The entangled single-photon sources are produced by focusing a laser on special non-linear crystals and then processing the resulting “down-conversion” beam of photons.
The optical alignment system uses mirrors that tilt to steer the photons directly where they need to go. The single photons travel one-by-one from the source drone to another to communicate securely.
“In war, for example, these drones would provide one-time crypto-keys to exchange critical information, which spies and enemies would not be able to intercept,” says Warner A. Miller, a professor of physics in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science and a retired lieutenant colonel, U.S. Air Force. “Quantum protects our information using the laws of nature and not just by a clever manmade code. One of our collaborators aptly stated, ‘whoever wins the quantum race will win the war.’”
Eventually, Miller plans to incorporate quantum memory in the drones so that they can conduct error correction, relay and store information.
“We are just scratching the surface of something that is going to amplify into a lot of different applications,” says Miller. “This technology is not only going to be on drones or robots. Eventually, we will have this secure communication technology on buildings and satellites that will open up a free space optical link between them. The only limit is your imagination.”