KETS takes flight (literally!) and looking ahead to 2 exciting projects in the new year – Satellite QKD (ViSatQT) & QRNG Assurance (AQRNG)
Tis that time of year to be looking back at all of the exciting things we have managed to do in this strangest of years, as well as forwards to even bigger and better things to come.
The first thing to highlight is a fantastic demonstration we did with partners Airbus, ID Quantique, and the Universities of Oxford and Bristol well over a year ago now as part of the InnovateUK project, Quantum key distribution for Drones with Optimal Size weight and power (Q-DOS Light). This project focused on the fact that the use of air and space platforms, such as drones and satellites, are becoming routine in civil, government, and defence applications. For example, Michael Jordan’s new golf course uses drones to deliver drinks and food to players (sorry, I had to work this in somehow!).
But in all seriousness, while you might not care if another golfer commandeers your drinks, you will care when someone commandeers your expensive satellite. In the vast majority of applications such as resource discovery, remote sensing, and surveillance to name just a few, the security of the control systems and data in the drone, HAPS (high altitude platform station) systems, planes, and satellites is of great importance. And there is a perfect convergence happening – as the radio frequency spectrum has become overallocated, end users are turning to free-space optical communications for increased data rates – and those same free-space optical comms systems can also be used to transmit highly secure quantum keys to keep the aerospace platform’s control signals and valuable data safe.
However, before QDOS, there was still one small problem… actually one large problem to be exact – quantum solutions needed a helicopter to get off the ground, not a lightweight drone or small cubesat. QDOS tackled the rapidly growing problem of delivering a low-weight, high-speed, free-space optical communication system with highly secure quantum encryption and eavesdropping detection. We had about a 2kg weight limit and managed to get our quantum transmitter down into about a 750g package! Further, we demonstrated secret key rates during bright daylight over 100m channels with as much as 25dB of loss. Not bad for a first prototype system.
Now that we have proven this technology, we expect it to become an essential building block of secure communication payloads for future aircraft and spacecraft systems. Words just don’t do it justice, watch the video below to see KETS’ technology literally take flight!
Speaking of spacecraft, we are now building on our QDOS work in a new InnovateUK project: Viable Satellite Free-Space Optical Quantum Key Distribution Technologies (ViSatQT). With quantum repeaters still requiring significant development, satellite QKD is the current best solution for enabling global quantum secured communications. Even when repeaters are developed, satellite QKD will still be an important building block to bridge continents and provide service to more remote locations. However, up until now current approaches have not been commercially viable as they could only operate at night-time, in clear sky conditions, with only the slim fraction of passes a LEO (low earth orbit) satellite typically makes directly overhead.
ViSatQT aims to solve these problems for a market estimated to be worth billions of pounds by accelerating the commercialisation of the satellite QKD technologies necessary for operation in daylight hours, cloudy skies, and other weather conditions. We are incredibly excited to be working once again with Airbus (who is already a major provider of UK-developed secure satellite communication systems) acting as systems integrator, with the University of Strathclyde and the Satellite Applications Catapult bringing their satellite development and space qualification knowledge, and with a number of cutting-edge SMEs to tackle this problem.
Our objectives in the project are to:
- propose new flexible, modular system architectures to enable the latest quantum technologies to be used,
- survey the technology landscape for key pieces that can aid the development of these systems,
- and develop a roadmap for lower cost, longer range, free-space optical quantum communications for institutional and commercial customers.
Actually, more than a roadmap, our goal is to define a commercially viable satellite QKD service as our second big step (don’t forget QDOS was the first!) toward ultimately enabling operational quantum secure communications for major private sector and institutional customers accessible in or from the UK in the near future. This work is particularly enjoyable for me as it is bringing back fond memories of my PhD when we studied satellite QKD and one particularly fun experiment that involved a hair dryer.
We have just had the kick-off and are gearing up for an exciting 2021 – watch this space!
Lastly, the world’s secure information technology infrastructure is based on the exchange and use of digital cryptographic keys. These must be chosen randomly to ensure security – thus random number generators (RNGs) are an essential component of today’s internet and IT systems. Indeed, every past, present, and future encryption algorithm needs to start with high quality entropy – randomness – in order to ensure security. And quantum random number generators (QRNGs) use the most random process known to humankind – quantum mechanics – to generate random numbers.
One small problem though (it always seems like there is one small problem, I guess because we are working on quantum technologies!). While the whole point of all of this quantum encryption technology is to improve and increase our information security, up until now a method for providing authoritative assessment of these technologies has been crucially missing. Enter our second new InnovateUK project: Assurance for Quantum Random Number Generators (AQRNG). Starting with QRNGs, this project will remove this key barrier to the commercial and industrial exploitation of this key new quantum technology.
Led by NPL’s Quantum Metrology Institute with technical advice and support from the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, this project will go beyond the usual statistical tests done on the output randomness from RNGs. QRNGs have the advantage that stronger assessment is possible since, in addition to the usual numerical analysis, the physical processes used to create the random output can be modelled and physically tested. This project will literally assess and measure the quantumness of the outputs and thus the privacy and security of the outputs to a degree which is simply impossible for other kinds of RNGs.
The project will develop a methodology that supports vendors in demonstrating how their devices meet their claimed security properties. It will bring together QRNG equipment vendors, including KETS, and implement this assessment approach. We expect the outputs of this project to inform international standards being developed for testing and certifying QRNGs, and ultimately establish an authoritative UK assessment process for QRNGs. This will in turn allow the UK to maximise its return on the quantum technology research in this field.
Again, we have just had the kick-off for this project and are excited to have NPL start putting one of our first commercial QRNG units through its paces in the new year. Before you know it, you will have your own QRNG powered magic eight ball to refer to. And just in time too, so far ours is winning the office football pool!
And as my last article of the year, I have to extend one final word to the KETS team. It has not been a normal year, it has not been an easy year. Nonetheless, you all kept calm, took the rapidly changing Covid situation in your stride, found the fun and humour wherever you could, and continued to accelerate us along our roadmap. From the bottom of my heart thank you. I am proud of what we have accomplished this year and incredibly excited to see what is yet to come!
Happy Holidays everyone and see you in 2021!
Chris Erven, December 2020
See the following for more info on AQRNG: