Quantum Timing, Imaging & Sensing Outlook 2021

In the wider quantum technology sector common underlying technologies are being developed for an increasingly wide variety of applications. New products are already at market and more are set to follow. Innovative leaders are setting an example of how involvement here is a force multiplier for their wider ambitions. The long term potential is huge.

Quantum technology is not just about computing and networks. Given that the underlying quantum phenomena are famously delicate, it’s not surprising that they are also unlocking new capabilities in timing, sensing and imaging. Often the challenge is to bring techniques out of the lab and make them deployable in new real world applications.

The sheer breadth and complexity of the potential market can make it difficult to appreciate the immense opportunity while looking at a blizzard of R&D and prototypes. What should we focus on?

Target industries: medical devices & diagnostics, aerospace & defence, automotive, resources, infrastructure and civil engineering;

The modality: time, gravity, acceleration, magnetic or electric fields;

Key tech platforms: vapour cells, cold atoms, trapped ions, diamonds, single photons, squeezed light;

Key enabling tech: photonics, micro/nano fabrication, computational science.

For a general introduction to this technology read Beating Quantum Winter – opportunities further up the quantum value chain

To illustrate what is happening in this sector, Fact Based Insight believes its often useful to focus on key examples at or near market. What can progress in 2020 tell us about the road ahead?

Magnetic sensing for biomedical applications

When future historians write the history of the Second Quantum Revolution, they’ll probably point back to SQUID magnetic sensors as the first commercial success of this new wave of quantum technology. The same Josephson junction technology used in such devices is now powering the superconducting qubits in the current generation of early quantum computers.  

Vapour cell OPMs

A high profile use of SQUID technology has been in MEG scanners used for non-invasive investigation of human brain activity. SQUID sensor technology now stands to be disrupted by a new wave of quantum sensing tech. OPM sensors based on vapour cells promise to change and greatly expand this market.  Following four years of development, startup Cerca is now brining an OPM-MEG scanner into clinical evaluation. Wider and cheaper access can be expected to lead to the discovery of more clinical diagnostic markers and new therapy opportunities.

Cerca is a spin-out built on work led by the UK NQTP Sensor Hub. It’s 50-channel prototype already matches the performance of existing SQUID –MEG systems, while dispensing with the latter’s need for the large, room-scale, fixed cryo based machines. The wearable helmet interface also offers a much more flexible system able to be used with head sizes from baby to adult and while still allowing the patient to move normally. This promises to make this emerging technique much easier to deploy in clinical settings. The design still requires use in a magnetically shielded room, but promises dramatically reduced upfront and running costs.

MacQsimal, a QT Flagship project, is also developing OPM-MEG scanner technology. Project partner MEGIN is currently a leading SQUID-MEG supplier.

This story already contains useful lessons for others. OPMs have been available from early quantum startups such as QuSpin for a number of years. Cerca’s key challenges included how to route the control and readout wiring required to scale up the system while keeping the prototype sufficiently compact and robust to be worn as a helmet; and how to automate the set-up, calibration and processing of data to make it usable in a clinical setting. This is an advanced computational task. Solving such problems required talent and a diverse skill set. National quantum technology programmes don’t just help with R&D money, they build the right networks. Quantum tech investors need to pick the right partners and keep timescales realistic. They also need to realise that one quantum technology can be disrupted by another.

MEG-BCI is potentially a more far reaching application of this technology. Proof of principal demonstrations already point to the potential of OPM-MEG helmets as a brain-computer interface. In contrast ECG-BCI approaches must either deal with the unfavourable electrical properties of the scalp, or require invasive surgery to implant electrodes. .

NV Diamonds

Vapour cells are not the only solution for magnetic sensing making rapid progress. NV diamonds can be operated at ambient temperature, this doesn’t offer such high sensitivity, but they offer miniaturisation and their non-toxic nature makes them particularly attractive for in-situ biological measurements.

Qnami has launched the ProteusQ a complete quantum microscope system based on its Quantilever NV diamond probes. The system is able to scan and characterise samples of magnetic materials at the atomic scale. The microscope comes as a desktop package designed for ease of use without any quantum-specific knowledge. Partner Horiba is now marketing the system.

Qnami has benefited from involvements in ASTERIQS, a QT Flagship project. Other strands of the project’s work involve partners Thales, Bosch, NVision and IMEC, each seeking a different application for NV diamond technology. This technology promises many surprising uses.

Hyperpolarised MRI (HP-MRI) is an advanced diagnostic technique that traces sugar injected into the body and shows what that sugar turns in to. This is useful, for example, in differentiating viable/non-viable heart tissue in a patient reporting chest pains. However this technique is not widely employed because it is slow and expensive to produce the hyperpolarised molecules consumed by the process. The use of NV diamonds promises to allow a much more rapid, cost efficient and deployable solution.

MetaboliQs, a QT Flagship project, is seeking to develop NV-diamond based HP-MRI technology. They have recently moved from proof of concept to a prototype with a 1000 fold improvement in performance.

Government initiatives are set to play an important role in accelerating the adaptation of this technology into diverse applications. Investors should also not be surprised to see NV diamonds featuring in technology for distributed quantum computing and the Quantum Internet.

Clocks are not so boring

Today it’s easy to overlook how ubiquitously we depend on precise and secure time keeping. Data networks and other utility networks require precise timing for their safe and efficient operation. Accurate and traceable time is vital for modern financial markets. Modern navigation aids depend intrinsically on precise GPS/GNSS timing signals. In fact, so useful are those satellite derived signals that other applications often depend on them for synchronisation.

However there is a problem. Satellite based infrastructure is subject to the risk of systemic disruption, during a conflict or simply due to a natural solar event. GPS/GNSS signals can also be spoofed by an adversary to fool a device. A clock that is accurate, robust, compact and cheap enough to be deployed locally would be able to protect against such disruptions. Current military aircraft typically need to resync their clocks several times per day. More accurate clocks in space are themselves also an opportunity.

Vapour cell clocks

Quantum technology is unlocking a range of devices competing to meet these challenges.

Teledyne e2v – compact clocks based on atomic vapour cells are a quantum technology now close to reaching market. KAIROS, a UK NQTP ISCF project, has helped Teledyne e2v to perfect their MINAC rack mounted atomic clock. A prototype was on display at the UK QT Showcase and is now being trialled by project partner BT.

MacQsimal is also developing vapour cells as the basis for a miniature atomic clock. The core component across MacQsimal’s target applications is a MEMS vapour cell with integrated optics and electronics. Fabrication has been demonstrated with 600 cells on a wafer, giving an insight into how this technology has the potential to reach a relatively low cost point.

Cold atom clocks

Today’s most accurate lab timekeepers are based on optical frequency transitions in atoms or ions – optical clocks.  Quantum tech cold atom systems promise to be the basis for a new generation of compact optical clocks that can bring this superior time keeping out of the lab. Though at an earlier stage of development, and probably always a higher-cost platform, such clocks offer the potential for remarkable accuracy.

IqClock, a QT Flagship project, is seeking to develop the technology for compact optical quantum clocks. The aim is to use a new superradiant laser design to make clocks of this type much more robust and deployable outside of the lab. Teledyne e2V and Chronos Technology and BT are notable project partners.

ColdQuanta’s product roadmap features a compact cold atom clock. While others are still waiting to space-qualify their components, ColdQuanta’s Quantum Core is already a key subsystem of NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory on board the International Space Station.

We can see the same underlying quantum technologies also pursuing applications in other sensing modalities.

Gravity and gravity gradients

Gravity is famously the weakest force of nature.  Quantum sensors offer to bring techniques out of the lab to dramatically improve the size, weight and performance trade-off available for practical applications.

Gravity sensing has many potential applications. Obvious ones include resource prospecting and environmental monitoring. Less obvious ones include security and defence (gravity cannot be shielded) and navigation (where gravity maps can provide a unique reference).

Muquans are a startup specialising in cold atom technology. In 2020, as part of the NEWTON-g project, their absolute quantum gravimeter successfully started taking data at the start of a 2 year trial on Mount Etna. This targets the practical application of understanding and predicting volcanic eruptions (and builds important field deployment experience at the same time). Muquans has also been selected to work with ONERA and the French MoD to develop a shipborne quantum gravimeter.

NEWTON-g also contains another interesting pointer to future systems. The Muquans absolute quantum gravimeter remains an expensive system with significant operating costs. The NEWTON-g concept calls for only one such device to anchor a larger array of much less expensive gravity sensors. Developed at the Univ. of Glasgow and based on conventional MEMS technology, these Wee-g devices already offer remarkable sensitivity. The possibility of upgrading the Wee-g using quantum squeezed light to improve its readout sensitivity (as was done with LIGO, the gravity wave detector) is being investigated in separate work.

M Squared has been developing a Quantum Gravimeter over a number of years and initial commercial spec’s have recently been published. The system comprises of a cold atom interferometer with footprint 0.7m x 0.7m  and laser & electronics box with similar footprint.  A key feature is that it is transportable. Initial target applications include geophysical survey. Development is benefiting from funding from the UK NQTP ISCF ABGRAV project.

Measuring gravity gradients is an application to which cold atom interferometry can be adapted. Though a more difficult setup to engineer, this has the advantage that many sources of noise are naturally supressed. Sensitivity to variations in sub-surface density make this is an attractive technique for underground survey.

Gravity Pioneer – This UK NQTP ISCF project is seeking to prove the path to commercialisation for this technology in civil engineering site survey applications, where a person-portable device with rapid data acquisition times would be an advantage. Work in 2020 has focused on building practical experience of how to compensate the system in the field for unwanted noise such as stray magnetic fields, temperature fluctuations and vibration. Project partners include RSK, Teledyne e2v and QinetiQ.

Muquans, in collaboration with LNE-SYRTE, have also successfully demonstrated their first lab based differential gravimeter able to measure gravity and the vertical gravity gradient at the same time.

Acceleration and navigation

General relativity also tells us that gravity and acceleration are just two sides of the same coin. Quantum tech can also sense acceleration and rotation. Accelerometers and gyroscopes have obvious applications in aerospace and defence and in self-driving vehicles of all types. Current devices with a footprint of 100-1000 litres can still only retain GPS-like accuracy for much less than 1 hour.  A better size weight and power trade-off and longer lasting accuracy is clearly an opportunity.

M Squared has been developing a Quantum Accelerometer for inertial navigation over a number of years and initial commercial spec’s are now available. The system comprises of a cold atom interferometer with footprint 1m x 1m and a laser & electronics box with similar footprint. Targeted initially at submarines and large ships, present accuracy is thought to be about 2km after 1 month, which is state of the art for satellite free navigation.

MacQsimal is developing vapour cells technology for a number of applications. Such systems could benefit from a lower cost and a smaller footprint. A recent highlight included a proof of principle gyroscope demonstration by BOSCH.

ColdQuanta’s product roadmap features a compact accelerometer and gyroscopes based on cold atom technology. Together with their clock, the company identifies this ‘QPS’ system as an important alternative to GPS based navigation. The company has won UK NQTP ISCF funding to lead the High-BIAS2 consortium including BAE Systems to demonstrate a quantum gyroscope in flight.

Imaging the future

A very direct application of quantum technology is its use to sense light at the single photon level. Such sensitivity, often coupled with the ability to tightly time when the photon was detected opens us a series of remarkable applications: 3D imaging in difficult conditions; detecting back scattered light to see round corners;  cheap and compact devices able to image previously inaccessible wavelengths. In more advanced applications quantum squeezed light can be used to further enhance measurement applications.

QLM is a startup pioneering a new range of quantum optical gas sensors based on infrared single-photon lidar technology. This offers a level of performance previously only available from bulky, cooled, high power laser systems; but in a compact, cost effective and deployable package. Initial field trials have focussed on detecting methane leaks in the oil & gas sector. Such leaks are uneconomic, dangerous and a major contributor to climate change. Moving the industry from intermittent scheduled inspections to continuous leak monitoring promises to be a big win and a large economic opportunity. For example BP plan to install methane measurement equipment at all its major processing sites by 2023. In 2020 QLM again completed successful trials at TOTAL’s TADI test facility. QLM’s presentation at the UK QT Showcase demonstrated the depth with which this business now understands it’s target market.

Horiba is a world leader in high performance instruments and has long been associated with the TCSPC technology used for fluorescence lifetime spectroscopy, an important but previously difficult to deploy analytic technique in biomedical and material science applications. The QuantICAM developed by QuantIC is an innovative new family of cameras based on a compact array of SPAD detectors.  Horiba has now launched this technology within FLIMera, a new generation of video cameras for florescence lifetime imaging microscopy. Over an order of magnitude faster than the previous technology, this allows the real-time study of samples such as live cells and fluid biopsy for cancer screening.

These early visualisation and imaging systems illustrate the importance of advanced computational techniques in rendering their output useful. This is a story set to be repeated across quantum sensing technologies.

GHz/THz sensing

The electro-magnetic spectrum from x-rays to light to radio waves has been a broad canvas for modern sensor technology.  In practice our current technology is a patchwork of what we can achieve in different frequency regions. Quantum tech is opening up new capabilities in different areas of this spectrum. Platforms such as cold/neutral atoms, trapped ions and vapour cells all offer potential.

The terahertz region constitutes the cross-over between the frequencies at which electronic versus photonic devices operate. Among other things, because it passes through many common materials such as plastics, paper and cloth, and is safe to humans and animals it has interesting security and biomedical applications. Unfortunately our ability to image in this interesting range has been limited.

MacQsimal is exploring the use of vapour cells for imaging at GHz and THz frequencies. Recent work at the Univ. of Durham demonstrated ultra high frame rate video imaging setting a new standard for speed and sensitivity in the THz range.

Canada’s Quantum Valley Ideals Lab has developed a Rydberg atom vapour cell ‘antenna’ operating in the 20GHz-THz range. Importantly this tech offers self-calibration, low field disturbance and micro form factor. These characteristics make it a potential good fit for the growing market for the testing and certification of top-end 5G (and beyond) wireless devices.

ColdQuanta also have plans to deploy its technology in RF sensing systems with a focus on defence applications. Again its Quantum Core, a compact cold atom source, is a key enabling technology.

Quantum (enhanced) radar

Quantum radar is one quantum sensing application that has been the subject of excessive popular hype. Its most advanced implementation, leveraging quantum correlations to reject spoofing and noise are probably still many years off. Even then, the improvements it offers may be more niche than revolutionary (perhaps a 3dB improvement in sensitivity according to QMiCS).

Work in 2020 has increasingly emphasised a more accessible early opportunity. The phase stability of the transmitted radar pulse and digitally sampled returns is often a limiting factor in the discriminating power of current systems. Quantum oscillators, a close relative of quantum clocks, promise to improve overall system phase stability by several orders of magnitude.

MEFA – Mapping and Enabling Future Airspace is a collaboration between the UK QT Senor Hub and Aveillant (a Thales group company) is investigating how quantum oscillators can be used to improve the frequency stability of practical radars. This promises to provide an advantage in particular in separating small moving objects from ground clutter (important for example in detecting drones in cities and airports). The UK NQTP Sensor Hub also plans to extend this work to look at how distributed frequency locking can be used to co-ordinate detection across a multi-node networked radar system.

QMiCS, a QT Flagship project, is developing quantum microwave technology, the ability to work at the single photon level at microwave frequencies.  This is an enabling technology for advanced forms of quantum radar, but also a key missing ingredient to allow superconducting qubit based processors to be connected between dilution fridges. It has recently demonstrated single microwave photon detection technologies operating at 30GHz and 10GHz.

The story of quantum radar is set to run and run.

Seize the day

The growing quantum ecosystem is providing opportunities for players to reinvent themselves and their strategies. Fact Based Insight would point to several examples:


As an academic spinout, ColdQuanta has specialised in cold atom technology since 2007. It already offers a range of cold atom systems products and has been able to build a strong track record of securing government funding to support its R&D both in the US and the UK. Its involvement with quantum technology spans from quantum computing, to timing, sensing and navigation. Other areas will follow including wider leverage of the machine learning computational tech developed for control and readout. It’s a great example of how underlying component technology can be used to position a business strategically across multiple complementary pillars of the quantum sector. ColdQuanta strengthened its executive team in 2019. Reflecting the strategic potential of this technology, in 2020 it added an impressive advisory board with deep insight into the intelligence and defence sectors.  Such multiple stranded opportunities both accelerate and de-risk the potential of the business.

M Squared

Founded in 2006, M Squared was originally known as a photonics business. The high performance of its SolsTiS Ti:Sapphire lasers made them an ideal fit for a number of quantum sector applications. Involvement with the UK NQTP, together with visionary management is transforming the business into a more broadly positioned quantum technology company.

M Squared is now leading DISCOVERY, a £10m project funded by UK NQTP ISCF to establish a supply chain cluster to support the development of testbed development facilities in the UK of neutral atom, trapped ion and optical qubit technologies for quantum computing.

Both ColdQuanta and M Squared illustrate the ability of ambitious companies with expertise in key underlying components to build a much wider strategy in the quantum sector.


One of the subtle advantages of quantum sensing technologies is that they are often based directly on a fundamental physical property, for example a transition between two well defined atomic states. This means that they can often bypass the traditional challenges of drift and re-calibration inherent in many conventional solutions. It’s not a surprise to see national metrological labs such as NIST, NPL or LNE-SYRTE involved in national quantum programmes to help turn such advantages into referenceable product features.

NIST-on-a-CHIP (NOAC) is an initiative launched by NIST seeking to revolutionise traditional metrology services. It aims to provide a suite of chip scale quantum sensors that offer measurements directly traceable to the SI defined standard units. NOAC promises to allow businesses to have cost effective continuous access to NIST-traceable standards in their lab, or their factory floor or even in their product device.

With initiatives like NIST-on-a-CHIP you could say that NIST is trying to engineer itself out of a job!

Future tech

Realising the full future potential of new quantum timing, sensing and imaging technologies promises to be a long journey.

Early devices reaching market typically exploit single quanta sensitivity and quantum superposition to realise the benefit they offer. We can ultimately expect a future generation of devices to also look to the potential of quantum networking and quantum entanglement to bring additional opportunities.

Quantum machine learning is particularly suited to data sets containing quantum correlations
… such as the output from future quantum sensors.

When we network n conventional sensors their fidelity scales as √n;
… when we entangle n quantum sensors, and if we can defeat loss and noise, their fidelity scales as n.  

Whenever we network two nodes we create a security vulnerability;
… when we use coherent quantum links we have inherent security.

Modern military aircraft are at the forefront of technology. Increasingly they are as much computer and sensor platforms as aircraft. A number of sixth generation fighter programmes are currently developing concepts due to be operational by 2035.

BAE Systems are key members of Team Tempest, a consortium developing a sixth generation fighter design. One emphasis of the design concept is its ability to operate in a connected and co-operative way with other manned and unmanned air, ground and sea assets. This is likely to require high security networks with high performance position and timing systems that can meet the different size, weight and power limitations of these various platforms. BAE clearly see this as a potential application for quantum technology.

However high technology programmes have long integration lead times. Sixth generation fighters will probably have to employ technology that can prove itself at the component level over the next 5-7 years. Some quantum technologies are likely to make the cut. However we may have to wait for seventh generation systems to see what truly quantum-native platforms can do.

To watch in 2021

  • Roadmap – BAE, BT and BP have announced a joint project to create a roadmap for quantum sensor commercialisation. Each builds on significant quantum tech experience. Watch out for insights from these three major FTSE 100 companies.
  • US NQI – Three centres have been founded that will include a focus on quantum sensing. These include the NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute Q-SEnSE (led by Univ. of Colorado Boulder) and the DOE National QIS Research Centers Q-NEXT (Argonne National Lab) and QSC (Oak Ridge National Lab). Expect more co-ordinated action from the US.
  • AFRL – The US Air Force is a big player in quantum timing and sensing. Watch out for their AFWERX and Quantum Collider events.
  • Timing – Watch out for results of field trials of next generation time keeping at BT. Watch-out for an enhanced compact atomic clock from Teledyne e2v. ColdQuanta plan to start the development phase of their planned clock; will target specs emerge?
  • Magnetic – Watch out for early clinical results in OPM-MEG. Watch for new applications for enhanced brain sensing.
  • Diamonds – Watch out as NV diamond sensors are targeted into a wider range of biomedical applications.
  • Gravity – Watch out for results from Newton-g ongoing field study on Mount Etna. Will we hear about customers for M Squared’s Gravimeter?
  • Underground survey – Gravity Pioneer isn’t about to produce a building-site gradiometer product. However this collaboration has built-up unique insight into deployment challenges. What happens next could be a useful indicator of the challenges remaining for others seeking to take similar technology into the field.
  • Cold atoms in space – NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory (built on ColdQuanta’s Quantum Core) has been upgraded with an atom interferometer. Watch out for proof of principle results on satellite based gravity measurements.
  • Navigation – Watch out for news of  initial customers for M Squared’s  Accelerometer. ColdQuanta plan to start the development phase of their planned system with target release 2025. Will target specs emerge?
  • FVEY strategic challenge – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and US are planning an initiative to field a quantum-enabled navigation device on a ship at the 2022 RIMPAC exercise. Will we hear more?
  • RF sensing – Watch out for growing applications for terahertz sensing in top-end wireless device testing.
  • Quantum radar – Watch out for increasing activity around entry-level quantum-enhanced radar. Expect clocks and frequency stability to be key themes.


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David Shaw

About the Author

David Shaw has worked extensively in consulting, market analysis & advisory businesses across a wide range of sectors including Technology, Healthcare, Energy and Financial Services. He has held a number of senior executive roles in public and private companies. David studied Physics at Balliol College, Oxford and has a PhD in Particle Physics from UCL. He is a member of the Institute of Physics. Follow David on Twitter and LinkedIn

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