Quantum technology could be transformational, possibly even as significant an advance in the 21st century as harnessing electricity was in the 19th. And while the full promise of quantum technology is unknown, in national security or any other field, it’s incontrovertible that governments and companies around the world are investing in it in a serious way due to the potential impact of quantum technology on aerospace, defense, and national security.

You probably don’t realize it, but you very likely already employ quantum technology on a regular basis. Get in your car, switch on Waze or Google Maps, and you are already harnessing quantum effects. A GPS receiver works by measuring the tiny time delays in signals from multiple satellites separated in space. Doing this requires very stable and very accurate time measurement: enter the atomic clock. Such clocks, which reside inside every GPS satellite, often use quantum superposition. They employ atoms of Cesium or Rubidium to achieve an extremely stable “tick,” one accessible only within the atoms themselves. The primary standard for time, operated using this kind of physics, is so stable that it will lose just one second in 100 million years. That kind of stability powers not just GPS but other systems as well, including the synchronization protocols that govern Internet operations.

A clock that loses just a second in 100 million years may sound like more than we need, but scientists are hoping to harness quantum technology to do even better. New generations of research grade clocks based on single atoms are currently in development that will lose only a second in a billion years. Better clocks mean better positioning-accuracy in future positioning systems. This represents only one high-impact near-term application of a new generation of quantum-enhanced technologies.

The emerging field of quantum technology has obvious potential applications in the security world. Quantum communications could allow political and military leaders to exchange messages with enhanced privacy, and to know with high confidence if someone had attempted to seize their information. Quantum computing power may be used to crack encrypted messages, solve critical materials-science problems, or unlock the key to efficient fuels.

Even the relatively mundane near-term development of new quantum-enhanced clocks may impact security, beyond just making GPS devices more accurate. The levels of stability achieved in typical clocks allows them to be used as sensors — their tick is so regular that tiny changes in the environment due to gravity, magnetic fields, and the like produce identifiable signatures. The most sensitive experiments to date have shown that such clocks can measure the change in the Earth’s gravity that comes from lifting the clock by a bit more than one foot.

The same core technology - cold trapped atoms - is emerging to power a wide-range of sensors for defense applications. For instance, atomic devices (operated in a slightly different way than atomic clocks) are routinely used for both magnetometry and gravimetry. They thus could be deployed by military personnel to detect underground, hardened structures, submarines, or hidden weapons systems. Given their potential for remote sensing, advanced atomic devices may become a key technology for surveillance and reconnaissance.

Finally, cold-atoms can be exploited for ultra-sensitive interferometric measurements using the wavelike nature of matter. Instead of building interferometers with light reflected off of (matter-based) mirrors, widely used in optical modulators, one can build interferometers using matter ``reflected’’ off of pulses of light. Such atom interferometers have the benefit that the atoms themselves have mass, making them sensitive to both gravity and general acceleration. Accordingly, there is an emerging area of work on quantum-enabled “PNT,” or precision navigation and timing. Here, atomic accelerometers may enable dead reckoning navigation in environments such as space or GPS-denied battlefields.

Q-CTRL is active across all of these applications, producing the fundamental enabling capabilities in systems design and quantum control to help our customers realize the true potential of quantum technology. Contact us to learn more about how we can assist through Quantum Professional Services and our advanced infrastructure software solutions.

Partially adapted from The Leap into Quantum Technology: A Primer for National Security Professionals