Quantum technologies are unlocking a new generation of measurement, sensing and imaging devices of unprecedented precision and capability.
The ability to routinely manipulate matter at the atomic level, tailor high performance laser systems and detect individual photons of light unlocks a wealth of possibilities. The very fine quantum interference effects that become manifest in these systems lead to devices of unprecedented sensitivity and accuracy.
Busy executives may be tempted to respond “Great, we’ll wait for our suppliers to pitch them to us when they are ready”. In many cases this would be a mistake. It fails to understand the scale of the change that these new technologies will offer in many sectors: value chains will be disrupted, new ecosystems will be created. Some businesses will seize great opportunities, some will go bust.
Measurement, Sensing and Imaging
Intertwined developments are underway in five main areas (1)(6)(8)(15)(16)(17):
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a long proven medical diagnostic technique with many uses. Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices (SQUIDS) are an example of a new quantum sensing device offering dramatically enhanced resolution and sensitivity, but currently require a large machine and a highly controlled environment. Advances in parallel technologies promise to transform the potential of this approach by packaging it into a lower cost and more easily deployable device. This could lead to applications in a range of practical medical devices from magneto-encephalography (brain scans), tomography (imaging), nano-probes (cell level diagnostics) and others.
The sensitivity of the new generation of gravity sensors promises to significantly extend the penetrating power and effective resolution of existing underground and through-wall scanning techniques. Equally transformational will be the reduced cost at which these techniques can be employed. This has implications that could entirely restructure approaches to costly problems in civil engineering, routine monitoring of utility and transport infrastructure and could greatly extend the use of gravity surveys in natural resource exploration.
Acceleration and Rotation sensors
Precise knowledge of a vehicle’s position is a key enabling technology for autonomous vehicles (e.g. cars, drones, trains, submersibles). Current GPS technology accuracy is limited to a few meters, is not available in all environments (e.g. tunnels, underwater) and is potentially subject to disruption. Quantum technology promises to extend accuracy to centimetres and remove the threat of disruption, allowing vehicles to operate more widely and safely.
Single Photon Avalanche Detectors (SPADs) are able to operate across a wide spectrum (including visible and infrared). Together with the fine control of lasers to provide structured illumination they are opening up a wide new field of high performance cameras: 3D imaging by measuring photon flight time, seeing ‘round corners’ by detecting triple scattered photons, imaging invisible gases in real time, cheap high-resolution night-vision, microwave imaging to completely displace conventional X-ray diagnostics. Camera signal processing can also be enhanced by using quantum entanglement to reduce image noise below the previously understood theoretical threshold (shot noise) and to allow visible light detection of ‘ghost images’ of subjects illuminated at other wavelengths. High resolution airborne quantum cameras will have applications in environmental monitoring, agriculture, oil & gas, security and defence. All of this promises to be a giant leap in camera technology.
Timing signals are an immensely important enabling technology for a large part of modern life: telecommunications networks, electricity distribution, financial markets, radar systems, subsea seismology (oil & gas exploration). Most such systems have become de-facto reliant on satellite based time synchronisation. These systems are vulnerable to disruption which could have large unforeseen consequences. A new generation of highly accurate, small scale and low cost clocks promise to be a preferable backup or replacement technology.
All of the above techniques promise to offer significant new capabilities. However, perhaps even more crucial is the relative small scale and potential modest cost of these systems once they are in routine manufacture. These are not the ‘machines in a lead lined room’ of a modern hospital, but potentially suitcase, handheld and chip-scale devices.
Almost Unimaginable Sensitivity
In 2015 the LIGO experiment operated by Caltech and MIT used laser interferometry to detect gravitational waves generated by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago. To do this it needed to measure displacements down to a ten-thousandth of the diameter of a proton. That is as far below the scale of nanotechnology, as nanoscale is to our everyday experience. The LIGO machines are large, with arms 4km long. However not many applications need quite this level of resolving power.
These technologies are starting to be available now and will mature over the next 3-6 years. They promise to significantly enhance the capabilities of the Internet of Things.