The European Commission is funding the Open Quantum Key Distribution (OpenQKD) project, where 38 different companies and research organizations are developing a future quantum computing network infrastructure for several European countries.

TOULOUSE, France A new project funded by the European Commission, OpenQKD, is providing government-industry collaboration, research and development of quantum computing technologies that hold the potential to exponentially advance the capabilities of aircraft systems within the next two decades.

Launched in September, OpenQKD consists of 38 different companies and research organizations with the goal of establishing a quantum communication infrastructure in several European countries. While hosting a tour of the quantum physics and computing shared academic and industry research labs at the University of Paris-Saclay, Thales Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Marko Erman discussed what needs to happen for aerospace and other technological sectors to reap the potential benefits of quantum computing in the future.

Quantum computing uses atoms rather than transistors to process calculations. Transistors store bits of information in two states, 0s and 1s, whereas quantum computers use quantum mechanics with qubits, which can be 0s, 1s or any number in between at the same time. This concept allows quantum computers to process combinations of data simultaneously, making them much faster than anything classical computing technology is capable of.

“You will see in 20 years, it will just be a new application that will invade your work,” Erman said.

Before opening their 2019 InnovDays event in Paris La Defense, Thales said it would be formally joining the OpenQKD project. While the ultimate goal of the project is to establish networking infrastructure and a new type of Internet for quantum computers, the research Thales is already involved in holds the potential for the use of quantum computing in aerospace.

As an example, in the super conductivity lab, Thales engineers are researching the development of a quantum antenna that is smaller than a finger tip. Using the quantum phenomena known as the Josephson effect, the antenna will be sensitive to the magnetic field component of radio waves and that allows the design to be much smaller. In contrast, classic antennas need to be larger, because they function based on fielding the electric field of a radio wave and need to have an aperture size capable of dealing with the larger size of the wave length.

Thales researchers leading quantum antenna development noted that the design they’re developing is currently only capable of receiving, but not transmitting signals. In other sections of the university, Thales engineers are collaborating with academic researchers to understand how cold atoms, flawed diamonds and superconductors among other unexploited properties of matter can provide the type of materials to replace reliance on transistors and support future quantum computing concepts.

“Quantum sensors have the potential to impact aerospace, defense and security and a host of other segments,” Erman said. “Why? All of these segments need actually to understand the world that is around them. Either positioning, timing, imagery, radio frequencies, you name it. What is unique with the quantum sensor is that they actually improve the performances, sometimes the time or bandwidth of a sensor application, for example, not by 50 percent or a factor of 2, they improve it by orders of magnitude, like 100, or 1,000 or 10,000 times.”

Thales isn’t the only major aerospace and defense company with an interest in the future disruptive potential of quantum computing in Europe.

Airbus,for example, has dedicated an entire section of its website to information about the future potential of quantum technologies. The French airplane maker specifically believes quantum sensors could improve the use of acceleration measurements to provide aircraft navigation systems with more accurate positioning data. In 2018, the company established a quantum technology application center in Newport, Wales, and also closed out its first-ever quantum computing challenge for aerospace start ups in October.

Moving forward, Thales will look to lead development of the space segment for the quantum communication network that Europe is seeking to establish as part of the OpenQKD project. Erman believes for quantum computing to move from research lab concepts to industrial reality, more investment and recruiting of experts in the field will be required.

“Which will come first? Some of the sensors, the antennas, the spectrum analyzers, these are some of the technologies that are the most mature that we have exposed to the press, and the rest will follow,” Erman said.

This article was originally published in our sister publication Aviation Today.