Advances in sensing and GPS positioning via quantum computing are expected in the next five years, but secure communications through quantum networks and a quantum Internet appear to be a longer-term effort.
"The near term payoffs that we see in capabilities that will be delivered will really be in the timing and sensing piece," Michael Hayduk, deputy director of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Information Directorate in Rome, N.Y., told Future of Aerospace in a recent phone interview. "Communication networked computing will take longer to develop and deliver capabilities to the field. For timing and sensing, where we see an impact coming is being able to go beyond GPS — so in GPS-denied and degraded environments, how you can bring precision navigation and timing technologies using quantum enhancements to the field. So, for example, bringing together improved clocks with increased stability, less drift and smaller volume that require less updates than you would have in clocks of today. Then in the sensing piece, how you can do that navigation piece and going after GPS-like accuracy for what today ends up being much less than an hour to longer time frames, hours and many hours in what you might need and require. The different types of sensors that we’re looking at to be able to take advantage of those properties include inertial sensors, magnetometers, gravitational sensors, and electric field sensors.”
Quantum computing relies on the properties of the basic building blocks of matter--electrons, neutrons and photons--and so-called "quantum bits," or "qubits," to conduct several operations at once and solve niche problems that today's computers cannot.
Enacted in December, 2018, the National Quantum Initiative Act, P.L. 115-368, authorized $1.2 billion in quantum research funding over five years that may add to the $500 million to $700 million spent across the federal government on quantum information technology. Last month, the U.S. Department of Energy and its 17 labs announced an effort to build a quantum Internet that could significantly improve data security. The European Union also launched a 10-year, $1 billion quantum master plan in 2018, the Quantum Technologies Flagship.
China has been moving to develop quantum encryption of the country’s communications to foil foreign intelligence agencies. In addition, the U.S. intelligence community said in a report in January last year that “foreign deployment of a large-scale quantum computer, even 10 or more years in the future, would put sensitive information encrypted with today’s most widely used algorithms at greatly increased risk of decryption.” This year, China has said that it will open its National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences in Hefei, Anhui Province. Published reports peg China spending at least $1 billion per year on quantum information sciences efforts.
In 2016, China launched the first satellite able to communicate securely via quantum cryptography and built a quantum communications cable connecting Beijing and Shanghai.
China's apparent advances and focus on quantum computing have added to the impetus on the part of the U.S. to speed up its own quantum research efforts, not only for aerospace and defense, but for economic well-being writ large in such areas as significantly faster big data analytics, improved manufacturing processes, and the design of new medicines.
For aerospace, quantum computing and neuromorphic computing are two methods being explored to get around the problem of much slower advances in the processing power of traditional computers. Emulating the human neural structure to adapt autonomously to new situations, neuromorphic computing is a closer reach, as it does not involve the size, weight and power (SWAP) trade-offs associated with quantum computers' cooling and stability requirements.
Sensing pods and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are already receiving neuromorphic capabilities in the test environment. In the last several years, AFRL has used the IBM True North Chip in a handful of field tests and exercises of neuromorphic processors combined with other processors and GPU-type computing chips. The effort is what AFRL has called "bringing artificial intelligence [AI] to the edge," to the warfighter.
Hitting the SWAP factor means that fielding neuromorphic processing capabilities, such as rapid image classification, is a very near term effort for aerospace, while the promise of quantum, though significant, is farther out.
“Quantum computers are still very much in their infancy," Hayduk said. "The state of the art right now are NISQ computers--Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum computers, and they have on the order of 50 to 100 qubits. We’re accessing those NISQ machines right now to kind of get a feel for what they can do and the algorithms we could look to develop with those systems. We see quantum computing as continuing to scale."
"Getting past scalability issues, coherence issues, and noise issues are all things that need to be solved," he said. "Ultimately, we need to get to quantum error corrected machines. It’s going to be many years before we get to those error-corrected machines, but what we’re excited about in the Air Force right now are looking at these NISQ-type machines and seeing what they can do and the problems they can solve now, and then scaling up as technology continues to advance.”
For the present, quantum computing, unlike neuromorphic computing, will not be at the knife's edge with U.S. and allied military forces, but instead will be in dedicated computing centers to focus on certain big data problems.
As a spur to the quantum research effort, Innovare Advancement Center--a new, 40,000 square foot technology research center in Rome, N.Y, adjacent to AFRL's Information Directorate--is sponsoring a $1 million "International Quantum U Tech Accelerator" competition next month.
The competition is to promote international university collaborations and research in the pursuit of novel quantum solutions. In addition to quantum technologies, Innovare Advancement Center is pursuing artificial intelligence/machine learning, cyber, and UAS advances.
Shery Welsh, the director of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, said that “with quantum science, we are on the cusp of a technology revolution, and the nation that can best apply quantum capabilities to communications, computing, sensing, and timing will have the upper hand."
"It’s essential that nation be the United States,” she said.