U.S. Air Force Research Locates Possibilities in Quantum at the Edge

Global positioning systems (GPS) are in the crosshairs for quantum computing investment from the U.S. Air Force, breaking with broader investments globally by focusing on a narrow set of applications involving quantum devices and methods. So too are secure, low-power networks and on-device communications for quantum positioning. 

There has been a fair bit of funding tossed around to support quantum initiatives from governments around the world. Often, these are focused on efforts to improve the function and practicality of future quantum computers and associated software. In the U.S. there is a more directed investment via a research grant competition supported by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).

What the seventeen winners of the grant share in common shows where the AFRL might be seeing some of the first practical applications in quantum computing: in GPS—an area where we have not seen a lot of specific work to date outside of quantum work in atomic and lattice clocks. Over half of the seventeen research selections have direct implications for using quantum methods for navigation in areas where GPS cannot be used. Nearly all of the remaining selected research could support low-power quantum device communications and quantum sensors.

The concept of quantum positioning systems, which is being explored as a dramatically more accurate method over current GPS systems but despite years of research it has not been widely enough integrated to replace traditional location methods. For military applications it is important to also have the required networking and communications technology baked in, as well as to fit into low-power requirements.

These research awards are noteworthy in that they show unique uses of quantum computing techniques that could be included on a device, instrument, or vehicle and opens questions about how important “edge” quantum could be in the coming years. So far, most government investments have focused on using quantum computers as provided by IBM, D-Wave, and others.

Among some of the research selected by AFRL are “Memory Enhanced Quantum Sensing for GPS-Denied Navigation” (University of Pittsburgh) and related, “Quantum Sensors for GPS-Denied Navigation (Australian National University). Related to GPS functionality is “Toward Sub-Picotesla Quantum Diamond Magnetometers for Defense” (University of Melbourne).

About half of the other research initiatives are focused on low-power quantum sensing and networking. This includes “Efficient Fast Photonic Integrated Circuits for Quantum Computing”; “Ultra-Low Power Magneto-optic Devices for Quantum Computing in Silicon Photonics” (UC Santa Barbara); and “Quantum Enabling Technologies to Support Communication and Networking” (Harvard University).

For a sense of where quantum sensing research seems to have a foothold, at least if these selections are any indication, 29% of the awards went to Australian research entities with 52% from U.S. researchers and the remaining to separate works at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

While the funding is not large for each selected research party ($75,000) each, it is notable that “quantum at the edge” has practical military applications with GPS of particular interest and with the emphasis on quantum networks for low-power devices and quantum sensing.

According to Michael Hayduk,  deputy director of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Information Directorate in Rome, N.Y., in the Future of Aerospace,

“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, magneto meters, gravitational sensors, and electric field sensors.”

The full list of the selected research items can be found here.

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