A look at quantum technology development at SRI: Quantum sensing and quantum communications


Quantum mechanics is a fundamental theory in physics that describes the physical properties of nature on an atomic scale


Quantum mechanics is a subject that has caught the imaginations of scientists and engineers alike; but is not new to the world. The ideas that formed the discipline go back to the turn of the 20th century. Luminaries such as Niels Bohr, Max Planck, and Albert Einstein are associated with the theory. Quantum mechanics breaks away from the confines of classical physics and attempts to explain the world of the infinitely small.

Now, as we enter the 2020’s, the laws of quantum mechanics as applied to technology development are leading the way in engineering and computing. Quantum engineering is a paradigm in technology; the performance and precision of a quantum device or sensor being way beyond anything the classical equivalent can do.

SRI is emerging as one of the leaders in quantum sensor development and engineering.

Enter the age of quantum engineering

Jesse Wodin, Laboratory Director, Applied Physics Laboratory at SRI points out that “every defense contractor, along with many commercial companies and DARPA, are spending money and resources on quantum engineering projects”.

Wodin discusses some of the topics that are being enabled and enhanced using the fuzzy nature of quantum engineering:

Quantum sensors: Quantum sensors utilize atoms as sensors. Real-world forces such as acceleration, light or RF energy affect atoms in a quantum sensor. We know how to measure the effects of these forces on atoms, which in turn allows us to measure these forces incredibly precisely. This allows us to build cameras that see further, radios that detect smaller signals, incredibly precise navigation systems or clocks that tell time more accurately. Autonomous cars, for example, use many types of sensors to help to navigate the car, e.g., vision sensors with cameras, radar, etc, creating an ecosystem of sensors. Quantum engineering techniques are being used to create sensors that will enhance the sensitivity of a variety of sensors used in the real world.

Quantum clocks: The humble clock is vital to the smooth functioning of the modern world. The US Naval Observatory Master Clock (USNO) is part of a composite of atomic clocks that form the backbone clock for the internet. Cell networks and GPS systems are also based on the USNO Master Clock. In fact, communication systems, space systems, power plants and almost all industrial control systems are ultimately dependent on time presented by this master clock. Modern systems are reliant on accurate timing. Failure of these clocks and timing systems derived from these clocks would be catastrophic.

Quantum mechanics allows you to build clocks that are based on the oscillations of electronic states of atoms. Wodin spoke to SRI about quantum clocks: “we measure time based on the tiny oscillations of an atom. The increased proliferation of these atomic clocks will reduce our dependence on GPS, which remains vulnerable to adversaries.”

Quantum communications: This is an emerging application area of quantum information sciences that SRI is actively involved in. SRI is exploring and developing hardware components for a future quantum network, that will enable the transfer of quantum information over long distances. This has applications in cryptography, quantum computing, and distributed sensing.


A quantum ecosystem at SRI International

Currently, SRI is conducting R&D in the areas of quantum sensing and quantum communication using a mix of internal and government funding. The era of quantum system engineering has arrived, and it needs a multidisciplinary team to bring products into the commercial space. Wodin gave this analogy: “When a company constructs a building, they use a mix of structural engineers, carpenters, truck drivers, and so on. The construction effort also needs master planners. The mix of engineering and technological experts along with building expertise is needed to create usable, attractive, buildings.

Quantum engineering is the same. If the project just has atomic physicists, they could have great ideas, but they may not translate well into the commercial world.” Wodin continued to point out that, “right now, we need other disciplines to join a wider team to build quantum projects for commercial use. This includes people with expertise in photonics, electrical engineering, system engineering, and mechanical engineering; you may even need chemists, biologists, and so on, depending on the nature of the development. In other words, an ecosystem of technical and commercial skills is needed to bring quantum projects to reality.”

SRI has worked on quantum-related engineering for over 20 years based on a number of internally and US Government funded programs and is keenly aware of the ecosystem-nature of modern technology development. One of the unique features of SRI is that the organization is able to leverage a vast and distributed network of world-class experts. For example, SRI can reach out to colleagues working on photonics to pool knowledge to build quantum sensors on a chip where the photonics is integrated into a small package.

Quantum dreams that SRI make a reality

SRI International is working in a number of areas that will use the phenomenon of quantum mechanics to drive technological innovations. The institute is now in phase two of the DARPA AMBIIENT program to develop a Quantum Magnetic Field Sensor. SRI’s brightest minds are also developing a technology called “evanescent field optical trap,” a technology that will help to scale-down sensors to chip size.

The field of quantum engineering is an exciting emerging space that SRI will continue to feature in.

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