Our ‘Science Behind the Technology Series’ gives us the chance to speak to our members about what they are working on, their plans for the future and why you should care about their work.
Swiss quantum firm ID Quantique was the first company to roll out Quantum Key Distribution, or quantum encryption, in a commercial setting, and the first to use the technology to secure election results. Last year the company became the subject of one of the first major deals in the industry when it received USD $65m funding from Korean telecoms giant SK Telecom.
This month I sat down in Lab 04 with Sylvain Chuard, Bristol Team Leader and Senior Hardware Engineer to find out about their latest research, what brought them to Bristol and why a conversation between ‘Alice and Bob’ has major implications for the future of Quantum technology and secure data transfer.
SPRINGS & QDOS Projects
In 2017 Swiss firm ID Quantique set up a satellite office and laboratory at Unit DX as part of an expansion of their research and development operations. This unit focuses on short-term projects, working with UK partners on innovative projects. The core projects so far have included ‘QDOS’, ‘SPRINGS’ and a LiDAR computer-vision project called ‘HELIOS’.
Sylvain tells me:
“SPRINGS was a methane gas sensing project with QLM, the University of Bristol and the drone company Sky Futures.” This project required Sylvain’s team to provide components for a gas sensor being developed by another Bristol start-up, QLM. The end result is a small, lightweight and highly-sensitive detector that can map gas leaks from up to 100 metres away, a figure much higher than anything currently on the market. The obvious benefit of this system, apart from the reduction in costs, is that it could reduce the amount of greenhouse gases leaked into the atmosphere.
“The SPRINGS Project was a success and with the help of QLM we created a highly-sensitive methane detection system. The next round of the SPRINGS Project is called NEFERTEM” (which is, of course, named after the ancient Egyptian god of perfume). “This will take the current system and create a fixed gas sensing device for a customer who wants to deploy it in a gas plant.
“The QDOS project was carried out in partnership with with Airbus, KETS, the University of Bristol and the University of Oxford. This project involved building a free-space quantum key distribution (QKD) system, between ‘Alice’ on a drone, and ’Bob’ on the ground.”
What makes this company stand out as technological pioneers is the transmission of encrypted information, or a ‘key’, from a sender (Alice) to the recipient (Bob) in a secure way, using their quantum encryption approach. Sylvain explains:
“What is new here is the keys are transmitted in a way that uses the laws of quantum physics, not a mathematical algorithm. The photons (single light particles) are sent through fibre or ‘free space’, they are detected at the other end, and then using well established quantum protocols, they are transformed into a provably secure encryption key distributed between Alice & Bob..”
“The laws of quantum physics, notably the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, says that if you try to intercept the signal and observe the photons, you disturb them. This means that you can detect eavesdropping or interception on the line. However, if the photons are received in the correct state by Bob, then you are able to extract an encryption key which has been exchanged between the parties (Alice and Bob) with provable security.”
Adam: So this allows you to see if someone has viewed the signal before it reaches the receiver?
If the photon arrives with the phase or the polarization altered (due to the eavesdropping attempt) then this bit of information will not be used to create the key. So the key is composed only of bits which have been transferred securely between the parties. One important thing to know is that the distillation of the key is possible only if Bob and Alice talk to each other. A non-encrypted communication link, orservice channel, is generally set up amongst the quantum link to allow an exchange of non-critical information. ‘Bob’ says, “Hey Alice, I have detected these photons, I’ve recovered their values, now we can go through several steps together to figure out the hidden keys. This service channel can be over any public medium. ”’
Adam: Could you tell me about the history of ID Quantique?
“In 2001, when IDQ was founded, there was no market for QKD – we really needed to create it. We had to explain to potential customers and end-users that if quantum computers are developed at the expected power, much of the data they store could be compromised.
“If you have a quantum computer, due to its capability to run parallel calculations, you could decrypt any sensitive data encrypted with widely used public key cryptography. . It’s a serious threat. Moreover, Google, IBM, Microsoft, etc. who are currently developing quantum computers, announced a few years ago that in 10-15 years they expect to reach this expected level of performance. We explain to organisations that when quantum computing does arrive, their data could be insecure. We also raise awareness about the “download now, decrypt later” threat, which means that encrypted sensitive data can be downloaded today and analysed offline when a quantum computer appears. Organisations that want to have their data secured for at least 10 years must act now.”
Sensing & Quantum Random Number Generators
“The founders of ID Quantique decided to build two other arms to the business: Quantum Sensing which include all kind of photon detectors, lasers, measurement devices, and a quantum random number generator (QRNG). So we have created a ‘three-legged chair,’ and used revenue from Quantum Sensing and QRNG to invest in our work in QKD. This made us more resilient and has allowed IDQ to be more stable when others have struggled in this industry.
“We received other investments over time, the latest one was SK Telecom, who invested USD $65m in the company. They have started to implement QKD in a 5G network they are setting up in South Korea. They want IDQ to help them improve the security of the network. They are also interested in promoting our LiDAR system in many different applications. Thanks to them, we have access to some markets that we couldn’t reach as a small company.
“With our ability to build good detectors, we can turn around bespoke detectors to proof-of-principle stage within a month. As a result, we have won projects with Airbus, the Ariane Group and with SK Telecom for LIDAR. We have also found that our detectors are very robust – it is very rare that we receive any detectors back for repairs or warranty claims.”
The Future of ID Quantique
“We opened our Bristol office because we wanted a group that is separate from the main machine in Switzerland. We wanted to conduct research; we don’t want to develop full products here. So we develop prototypes and proof-of-concept. If we decide to go ahead with them, we transfer the technology to Switzerland and they can develop the prototype into a product. I think being the first into a market when you develop new technology is the best position you can be in as a company. We want to look for new markets and develop new technology, and dig into the research coming out of universities in the UK.
“Thanks to Innovate UK funding we are able to take on higher risk projects and try new things. Without this kind of funding we would have a more pressing need to make money and we wouldn’t be able to spend time on these riskier projects.”
To find out more about ID Quantique, visit their website.