Dstl - The science inside UK Defence and Security
Designing a ground-breaking new quantum technology to keep the nation safe
Radio communications underpin many aspects of our defence and security infrastructure. But the basic principles behind the technology design haven’t changed in over a century. Now quantum technology is changing that. We designed the blueprint for a radically new type of radio receiver, with the potential to transform the UK’s most critical communication capabilities including defence, security and emergency communications.
Capitalising on our expertise in quantum physics and applied engineering, we developed a ground-breaking design that is one of the first of its kind in Europe. It will play a key role in positioning the UK at the forefront of quantum development and application. Crucially, it will also help to make the communications infrastructure on which our way of life depends more resilient and more secure than ever.
- Applied advanced quantum principles to the practical challenge of making radio communications more agile and flexible
- Unravelled complex scientific advances to pinpoint the opportunity for the UK to become a leader in a disruptive technology
- Supercharged our own expertise in quantum science through seamless collaboration with researchers at the University of Durham
- Designed a quantum radio sensor incorporating twin lasers, one of the first of its kind in Europe, in just two months
Creating new space and greater security for vital communication
Radio waves and the antennas that receive them are woven into the fabric of our modern lives. Built into mobile phones, sat nav systems and wireless networks, these tiny components play a vital role in keeping modern life moving. Their presence in the UK’s defence infrastructure means they are also crucial to keeping the nation safe.
The range of frequencies within which traditional antennas work is getting more congested and more contested. Emergency services, for example, might struggle to get the clear bandwidth they need to coordinate their response to a terrorist incident. Or hostile states might contest for control of the airwaves in an attempt to divert the management of vital infrastructure or increase the complexity for defence forces responding to a situation.
Alert to these challenges, the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) called for ideas on how disruptive technologies could provide a solution. The agency’s role is to help the UK government apply science and technology innovation to strengthen the nation’s defence and security. We have worked with Dstl for over a decade, developing a deep understanding of their needs. We were unique in identifying the possibilities from a radical new source – quantum technology.
Applying disruptive technology to real-world challenges
Quantum technology is a fast-emerging field of physics and engineering. The UK government has invested over £1 billion into quantum technologies since 2014. Quantum technology uses the principles of quantum physics to develop new communications networks, computers and sensors for imaging and measuring objects. In the context of radio, we can use light to sense radio waves, deploying lasers to pick up the infinitesimally small changes in atomic vibrations that radio waves can cause.
Combining scientific and engineering capabilities
We worked with Dstl to unravel the scientific complexities and bring the opportunity of quantum into focus. We brought forward a distinctive mix of scientific and engineering expertise to meet the challenge. Our team combined experts in optics, quantum physics and quantum communication, with specialists in applied sciences, telecommunications and radio engineering.
At our Global Innovation and Technology Centre, experts from across these fields collaborate constantly to bring forward unique insights. In particular, engineers provide constructive and creative challenges to ensure that advanced scientific thinking translates into practical, realisable applications for the real world.
Pinning down the potential
One question we needed to answer was how long it would be before quantum sensors would outperform traditional antennas. Our physicists scanned a vast array of research papers to understand improvements in sensitivity to date and to track the rate at which these advances were being achieved.
By plotting these two vectors – sensitivity and time – against each other, we identified the point at which quantum sensors would surpass their traditional counterparts. It was little more than four years away. To compete at the cutting edge of quantum application, the UK needed to invest in developing its capabilities now.
Realising the opportunity
To enable Dstl to take up the challenges, we developed a blueprint for a powerful quantum radio sensor, progressing from concept to final design in just two months.
We find the most powerful and disruptive innovations begin by bringing together different technology experts. We started with Dstl’s requirements and combined them with our own areas of expertise, particularly in laser physics and telecommunications. We also collaborated with leading academics and physicists at the University of Durham. Our strong links with research institutes and universities in the UK and worldwide are an integral part of our science and innovation capabilities.
Together we were able to identify engineering ‘trade-offs’, such as sensitivity, tuning range and practicality, and potential areas for improvement. We set about understanding the performance metrics that really mattered to Dstl, like accessibility and flexibility. We then looked at the ‘levers’ in both laser physics and telecommunications that we had to control the process. This enabled us to realise a disruptive approach that balanced performance, complexity and accessibility.
We used off-the-shelf components and combined them in an ingenious way to deliver core functionality. We knew this would make the demonstrator faster to build, shortening the time to start trialling the new sensor and provide the opportunity for the UK to be running with the leaders in the race for this new capability.
Our resulting design for a research-grade demonstrator is 1cm long, incorporates two precision optical systems (lasers) and has a tuning range spanning several 10s of GHz. Once the demonstrator is built, this range will allow it to pick up radio signals far beyond the existing, congested frequencies, opening up new and uncontested space for communication. The demonstrator will be one of the first of its kind in Europe.
This system, which is based on Rydberg atoms, will also provide a range of benefits over a conventional radio receiver. For example, in conventional techniques, the frequency and physical size of the radio is linked. So, to create a longer or shorter wavelength, you need to adjust the size of the antenna, which can be challenging to manufacture. Our design provides the opportunity to tune frequency, with no moving parts, over a significant operating range. It also offers a wider operating range, doesn’t require demodulation electronics which helps to increase power and complexity, and provides some in-built filtration of external noise.
Positioning the UK at the cutting edge
Dstl now has the plans to build one of the world’s most advanced quantum radio sensors. This will accelerate its capacity to work with partners across science and industry to develop more agile, more secure communications for defence and security.
By positioning Dstl at the forefront of quantum technology application, we have opened up a valuable and strategically significant opportunity for the UK to become a world leader in this space.
Back in our everyday world, the radio technology that underpins our social infrastructure and national security is on its way to becoming more secure and more resilient. In a very short time, quantum technology applied in the sphere of radio communications will become instrumental in protecting our way of life and keeping us safe.