When we think about sensors, we typically envision them in the classical sense: they detect environmental changes by absorbing and measuring some form of energy. Often, this also requires first emitting energy to have enough of a reflection to locate a physical object or identify changes to an environment. Once a sensor receives information back from its surroundings, it can then be shared with other electronic devices like computers for processing and analysis.
This ability to detect environmental changes makes sensors useful, but it also makes it possible to detect their presence. By emitting and absorbing energy, they’re ultimately disturbing the environment and are therefore not the simple passive observers we sometimes imagine. Technologies like radar, GPS, and X-ray all operate this way.
But what about environments where there are limited data transmission capabilities, like the Denied, Disrupted, Intermittent, and Limited (D-DIL) connectivity environments first responders are often asked to work in? What about Department of Defense missions that require operating without giving away position or intention to adversaries? In these situations, the potentially revealing nature of classical sensors presents a challenge.
Enter: quantum sensing.
Quantum Sensing Is a Building Block
Quantum sensing involves measuring the spin of electrons. With it, we can determine locations, accelerations, magnetic fields, rotations, gravity, and time. And we can do it faster, more accurately and more precisely than traditional sensors and with significantly less disruption to the sensors’ environments.
Quantum sensing is analogous to the invention of the transistor, the semiconductors found in nearly every modern electronic device. After the transistor was invented in the late 1940s, it began replacing tube- and relay-based systems because of the multitude of inherent improvements that transistors offered over preceding technologies. People started finding applications for transistors everywhere – either to replace old technology or to spur new innovations. The first transistor radio had just four transistors in it. The latest iPhones have upwards of 17 billion.
Similarly, quantum sensing will become a transformative building block with sensing applications everywhere that will eventually make it as ubiquitous as transistors are.
Potential Use Cases for Agencies
Since sensors are used universally, this new technology has many implications in improving a multitude of mission outcomes. In navigation, for example, when it comes to determining where you are in relation to other objects, but also when it comes to being able to avoid adversaries or someone who is looking for you. In the national security realm, quantum sensing can aid in the swift and unintrusive identification of mines or bombs, or other malicious materials like chemicals or biological agents.
In healthcare, it can be used to more quickly detect biological anomalies that point to disease. It can lead to the development of less intrusive, radiation-free diagnostics that can not only help physicians detect and treat conditions sooner, the non-invasive (and eventually more cost-effective) nature of these scans will mean people are more likely to have them done in the first place.
In aviation or transport, quantum sensing can be used to stress test metal in things like an airplane wing or other heavy-duty, high-use equipment. You can use it to screen packages that are sent through the mail or to scan deliveries to high-security facilities like embassies at home or abroad. There are applications at border crossings and customs checkpoints in airports as well.
What’s Lies Ahead?
The progression towards quantum sensing is a natural evolution in sensing technology, following the same development lifecycle as many other technologies: mathematical concepts evolve into practical applications through applied science and industry adoption. Science knows what the mathematical and physical capabilities are, but creativity comes into play when we think about the discovery of additional use cases for them. To that end, GDIT is having conversations with customers now about quantum sensing and how to advance their missions. These discussions encompass everything from hardware – and, often, surprisingly little new hardware is required – to governance and metrics.
We’re also talking with them about quantum computing and specifically quantum networking which allows agencies to create air-gapped networks that are completely and verifiably secure. The communication between two points can't be intercepted without it being obvious to both the sender and the receiver. This is a prime example of how two different quantum technologies can go hand-in-hand; agencies can use quantum sensing to identify threats and use quantum networking to communicate in more secure ways.
Beyond conversations with our clients, GDIT is an active member of the Quantum Working Group at ACT-IAC. I co-lead the group, whose members include agency partners, other mission partners and academics who all share an interest in working collaboratively to help ensure quantum technologies are advanced and leveraged for all their potential benefit. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology is also active in the quantum space and is developing a new atomic clock standard involving quantum sensing that would make atomic clocks more accessible so that GPS systems would no longer need to interact directly with satellite clocks.
It’s an incredible time to be a part of the quantum community. The imperative for agencies today is to participate in this community, ask for and contribute ideas, identify priority use cases, and get to work on their implementation. If your mission involves any sort of sensor or something that could be sensed to provide valuable insights, there may be a quantum sensing application and we’d be more than happy to help you develop that use case.
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