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A satellite, quantum communications and public services


Vivienne Raper

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Tim Spiller
Image source: Professor Tim Spiller. Pic from University of York

A satellite the size of two shoeboxes stacked together will be among the world’s first to test the scope for secure quantum communications to provide future benefits for public services.

Named CubeSat, it will be used by UK Quantum Communications Hub (UKQCH), led by the University of York, to understand how the technology could help UK public services communicate securely.

“Quantum communications by satellite is a way forward for government communications and for service providers, such as BT in the UK,” explains Professor Tim Spiller, director of the UKQCH in an interview with UKAuthority.

All international communications by governments and public service providers, even those as simple as using the internet, require secure encrypted communications. But researchers such as Spiller worry that the development of quantum computers, which harness the behaviour of atomic and subatomic particles to do very fast calculations, will render today’s encryption technologies obsolete.

As a result, he and his colleagues are working to develop technologies for secure communications that themselves rely on quantum phenomenon.

Preparing for the future

“We’re doing the preparation work today to ensure we have suitable communication methods in the future, even if the current ones are broken or vulnerable,” Spiller says.

Future proofing communications is among the reasons why the UK government announced a funding programme for quantum technologies in 2013; and he says the UK National Quantum Programme (UKNQTP) was one of the first coordinated national programmes to develop the technologies.

It aims to develop new quantum communications technologies for the benefit of the UK government and public services, as well as business and consumers, and now has four ‘hubs’, one of which is the UKQCH.

He says that a lot of quantum communications within or between cities can be done by leveraging the optical fibre network, but that this does not work over very long distances. The amplifiers used to boost encrypted signals in today’s undersea cables do not work with quantum signals.

“So, if we want to communicate worldwide, we have to lay new fibres with new quantum amplifiers that don’t exist, or we do it by satellite,” he says. “And right now, satellite is seen as the most appealing route forwards, and not just for the UK.”

Data mission

The CubeSat satellite, scheduled for launch in 2024, will provide a significant step in the research with a six-month mission collecting data on quantum communications between continents. It is being built by Dutch company Innovative Solutions In Space under a £1.6 million contract with funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The company will also provide support and further development.

CubeSat will carry a quantum transmitter that will use light and infrared signals, as well as a parallel radio channel, to communicate with a quantum receiver at a ground station on the Errol Airfield near to Perth in Scotland and close to two of the hub partners, the University of Dundee and Heriot-Watt University.

“We’re doing it that way around because the bigger the quantum receiver, the more likely you are to catch quantum signals coming in from space,” Spiller says.

The researchers will investigate the effects of clouds and atmospheric turbulence on the quantum signals.

“We already know clouds limit you to less than 24/7 service when you’re making satellite transmissions in the optical [light] and infrared range. But we need more data on how much turbulence we can have, which will help us plan for the optimal way to move our R&D towards providing a commercial service.”

He adds: “It’s an R&D satellite, but there’s a lot to learn so this is a very important R&D step. Once we learn through that next step, we can put up a bigger satellite to do quantum communication with service level performance.”

Cross-continental ambition

Eventually, Spiller and his colleagues hope their work will help future UK public sector secure communications with cross-continental organisations, such as other national governments or services.
He further explains that to support such secure communications, government buildings might have their own quantum receiver dish on the roof, or a secure fibre connection to such a receiver ground station.

As well as satellites, the University of York team is investigating the use of high altitude balloons, and solar powered aircraft that can recharge themselves. These platforms would allow secure communication over shorter distances than the satellites and make an important contribution to the future of public sector communication.

“But it’s early days,” Spiller says, adding that the hub has not yet committed to the building of a plane or a high altitude balloon.

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