The UK Quantum Showcase demonstrates why others around the world are seeking to copy the UK’s quantum technology approach. It’s little surprise that the UK government is providing additional funding of £315m over the next 5 years.
The 2018 UK National Quantum Technology Showcase took place in the prestigious QEII conference centre overlooking London’s Parliament Square. The first Showcase in 2015 had 300 attendees and just 11 stands. This year 900 attendees enjoyed 84 cutting edge exhibits. These included the latest applied quantum technology research, demonstrator systems and full prototypes in a wide range of areas. Enabling technologies and hybrid-conventional devices spun out of this activity were an equally valid part of the whole.
The Showcase is not an academic event. Rather its focus is on the innovation generated when commercially minded researchers meet industry. Academic physicists, engineers and computer scientists mingle with former colleagues in startups and commercial groups.
A casual observer might have been surprised to see how little floor space at the Showcase was dedicated to quantum computing per se, or even to the novel quantum information processing that it enables. While the UKNQT programme does address these areas, they are evolving on a longer term horizon. The immediate buzz at this event was from the short term opportunities in Quantum Cryptography, Quantum Sensors, Quantum Imaging and the remarkably vibrant ‘quantum economy’ of component and enabling service providers. Increasingly the commercial opportunity is here and now.
Wide industry focus
The commercial focus of the Showcase was emphasised by its organisation around industry themes: Security and Defence, Transport, Oil & Gas, Communication and Future Networks, Internet of Things, Space, Finance, Healthcare, Navigation, Civil Engineering, Aerospace and the quantum economy. However, to get a full picture of the depth of opportunity across sectors you also have to consider the secondary applications many exhibits are targeting in multiple areas.
The security in our communication networks is a major 21st century challenge. The Showcase had a full set of quantum cryptography technologies on display reflecting the current state of the art in many areas of the field. Speaking at the Showcase, Andrew Lord (BT, Head of Optical Research) confirmed that BT has proof of concept trials underway with major customers.
UK Quantum Network – currently this includes metro networks Bristol and Cambridge, plus a link to BT’s Adastral Park. This provides a major testbed for QKD development, including current commercial and prototype systems from IDQ and Toshiba, and important extensions such as SDN operation and inter-operation with handheld devices. Work remains ongoing to complete the network via a long distance Cambridge-London-Bristol link.
AQuaSec – this project, announced at the Showcase, will be led by Cambridge-based Toshiba Research Europe with partners including BT, KETS Quantum Security, IQE, CSC and Bay Photonics. It will develop a PIC based chip to radically reduce the size and cost of current QKD solutions. Andrew Shields of Toshiba foresees potential ‘orders of magnitude’ cost reductions using this approach.
Telecoms network operations also have a hidden dependency on continued access to GNSS timing signals for synchronisation purposes. Given the vital economic role of data networks and the relative vulnerability of GNSS platforms, this is a significant area of concern. The compact, low-cost atomic clocks being enabled by quantum technology promise to provide a practical solution.
KAIROS – this project, announced at the Showcase, will be led by Teledyne e2v, with partners including NPL, Leonardo, Altran and CSC. It will build compact atomic clocks suitable for critical infrastructure applications such as data and 5G networks (and also electricity supply and financial transaction synchronisation).
Telecom network operations also have their own complex optimisation challenges, a task where many expect the novel algorithms of quantum computing to make a big difference in the long term. In its full form this is still many years off, however Andrew Lord pointed to the possibility of much earlier benefits based on the quantum annealing approach. The QCAPS project has recently investigated this area using the D-Wave 2000Q machine. This technology does not offer universal quantum computing, but this work points to its potential to offer approximate solutions, sufficient to provide business benefits, on a much shorter term horizon. An increase is required in both the numbers and connectivity of annealing qubits. D-Wave is expected to launch the iteration of its architecture with increased connectivity next year. The Showcase included UCL’s contribution to next generation annealing technology.
Security & Defence
Military and security services have a natural interest in data security. In addition to the cybersecurity projects discussed above, Airbus are investigating a drone-based QKD system with KETS Quantum Security. However an even larger segment of activity at the Showcase focuses on quantum imaging and quantum sensors.
Enhanced imaging systems provide an important edge on an adversary, both in terms of detection and targeting, but also in the basic ability to operate in difficult environments. Emerging applications typically combine quantum technology with advanced computational imaging techniques. Highlights on display at the Showcase were a variety of demonstrator projects from QuantIC that are undergoing field trials.
Pilot assist – a video camera able to see through whiteout/brownout conditions. Misjudged landings in adverse conditions cost the US military $100m in repair costs annually. This system has enjoyed a successful field test at the NATO whiteout trials. Lockheed Martin is the development partner.
Hidden target detection – imaging targets hidden behind corners/obstacles. This system has proved able to detect a moving object behind a parked car 100m away in broad daylight. Thales is the development partner.
Underwater vehicles – imaging and data comms at previously unattainable distances. High rate comms are expected to 30 scattering lengths. Fraunhofer are leading this development.
Many craft/vehicles need navigational options that are not GNSS dependent. Both because these signals are not always assessable (e.g. in underwater, or in dense urban environments) or could be disrupted (e.g. by a solar flare or hostile action). Quantum technology is enabling a new generation of self-contained navigational aids.
Transportable Accelerometer – M Squared and Imperial College London have demonstrated a sensitive quantum accelerometer as the basis of an independent navigation system. The current system fits in a 1m3 cube (practical even at this size for a ship or submarine). Further reductions in the size of this system are expected to follow.
Magnetic sensing is another key area of interest. A variety of sensing technologies are under development. The University of Sussex is seeking to develop a novel tuneable RF sensor for use in counter eavesdropping, drone and radar detection.
Magnetic anomaly detection is already an important technique in anti-submarine warfare. Future ultra-sensitive magnetometers, when deployable at sea, promise to significantly compromise the security of submarine operations in hostile environments.
Oil & Gas
Natural gas is an economically important bridge to less environmentally damaging sources of energy. However leaks during its production and transportation are themselves environmentally and physically dangerous. Producers face both economic and reputational damage from accidents. Detecting methane (the principal component of natural gas) has become an important early opportunity for quantum imaging techniques.
Drone based leak detection – startup QLM are trailing their detector with drone inspection specialists Sky-Futures. Multiple Oil & Gas majors will be watching these results.
IndiPix – QuantIC’s low cost camera can image CO2 (and hydrocarbons). Developed with gas sensing specialist GSS.
Imaging in difficult conditions (and associated data comms) is a challenge in many of the offshore environments in which Oil & Gas companies work. Underwater vehicle technology from Security & Defence applications will also be of interest here.
Understanding what is underground is economically key during both the exploration and production of all natural resources. Conventional gravity survey techniques are already used by the industry but they are slow, expensive and of limited sensitivity; they are therefore a technique of last resort. New sensors promise to transform this survey tool with increased sensitivity, lower cost and greater ease of use.
Wee-g – QuantIC’s low cost MEMS gravity sensor. A high profile field trial is planned next year on Mount Etna. Project partners include Oil & Gas services specialists Bridgeporth and Schlumberger. Partners Clyde Space and QinetiQ are looking at Space and Defence applications.
Magnetic sensing also promises to have applications in mineral and oil prospecting. Multiple groups, pursuing alternative quantum technologies are developing devices in this area, but at an earlier stage of development.
Optimisation & AI
In the longer term, the Oil & Gas sector is one of those that stands to benefit considerably from the new optimisation algorithms that quantum information processing offers, and also from the expected impact of quantum computing on AI capabilities.
The ability to rapidly and precisely diagnose medical conditions is one of the foundations of precision medicine, the direction that many expect to dominate the future of Healthcare. Quantum technologies are opening up a wide variety of opportunities in medical diagnostic and screening tools.
Bacteria detection – startup FluoretiQ’s portable system for detecting bacterial contamination will undergo a field trial with the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Gateshead. This should be closely watched as the opportunity is potentially massive – simple infections such as sepsis cost US hospitals $20b annually.
Brain scans – UCL and Univ. of Nottingham are perhaps 1-2 years away from perfecting a radically lower cost, easier to deploy and more sensitive technology for full-head MEG. Practical early diagnosis of conditions such as Alzheimer’s promises to have tremendous societal and ultimately economic benefits.
Cancer detection – Horiba and QuantIC are leveraging the ultra-high time resolution offered by quantum technologies to improve cancer biomarker detection via fluorescence imaging.
Intelligent drug design
Quantum computing promises to have a profound effect on chemistry, materials science and other disciplines whose problem solving approaches are currently defined by the limitations of conventional computing power. This will have a major impact on pharmaceutical drug research, not just in the search for new active molecules but crucially in allowing the industry to reduce the vast sums it must currently spend on unsuccessful clinical trials, the failure of which could have been predicted by simulation on a quantum computer. Pharmaceutical companies now typically invest $1b for each new drug that reaches the market, over a process that typically takes 10 years (7)
Full solutions to these problems are still probably 10-20 years away due to the scale of machines that will be required. However early activity is already underway. Skills in this area will take a long time to build, and it may be possible to find commercial advantage from the partial solutions offered by interim approaches (e.g. NQIT’s variational quantum simulator algorithm). The pharmaceutical sector is itself one with very long term horizons.
Chemistry simulation – startup Riverlane is focused on developing the algorithms and software that will be required for drug and materials design.
The development of new lab-based technologies also promises to directly benefit medical research. This includes a variety of technologies for super-resolution microscopes and other novel sensing approaches, such as the use of plasmonic polarimetry to sense changes in protein structure.
Virus sensing – Oxford HighQ are a startup focused on using microcavities for nanoparticle characterisation (a technique that can be used to detect and study viruses). This is a great example of a technology originally being developed for quantum computing being adapted to a novel sensing role.
Automotive & Logistics
Advances in AI are already set to transform the automotive sector. Self-driving and autonomous vehicles are set to benefit from adapted versions of the imaging technologies discussed above for the Security & Defence sector. Manufacturers seeking an edge in safety will often find it useful to deploy hybrid solutions where complementary imaging and sensing technologies are able to extend performance or provide redundancy.
Eye-safe 3D laser imaging – QuantIC have a new detector technology optimised for eye-safe near-infrared light. This promises to combine well with advanced computational 3D imaging techniques to unlock low-cost active laser 3D imaging.
Optimisation & AI
Fleet operation, routing, fuel use, and insurance abound with a key class of optimisation problems where the performance of conventional computers is capacity limited. Quantum information processing offers algorithms that are known to offer significantly improved performance. Full solutions to these problems will require large scale quantum computers, however companies seeking early experience and benefits such as Trakm8 are working with intermediate approaches such as quantum annealing.
Ultimately we can expect quantum machine learning to further expand the role that AI plays in logistics operations.
Financial institutions of all sizes are early target customers for those seeking to provide quantum safe cryptographic solutions. The practical need for such solutions runs far in advance of the actual realisation of large scale quantum computing. Banks in China have been early customers for the Chinese quantum network. BT isn’t disclosing details, but Fact Based Insight suspects its proof-of-concept QKD trials are in this sector.
Optimisation & AI
Complex financial portfolios are a natural target for quantum optimisation techniques and AI assisted decisions making. Speaking at the Showcase, Lee Braine of Barclays emphasised opportunities from portfolio modelling to operational transaction netting. Though major investment banks such as Barclays and JP Morgan have already engaged with IBMQ, this is still an early phase activity, at working group level rather than an organisational focus.
Nanosatellite platforms such as CubeSat promise to be a key enabling link for the employment of quantum cryptography between remote locations. In addition, the high performance of quantum devices versus their low power and weight requirements are often well suited to applications in space. Many sensing applications could ultimately involve deploying sensors in space for continuous Earth observation.
CASPA – Teledyne e2v and Clyde Space are developing a payload for this mission that will prove key underlying quantum sensor technology in space. This promises to unlock applications in clock synchronisation, gravity sensing, space navigation and positioning.
3QN – this project, announced at the Showcase, will be led by quantum-resistant blockchain startup ArQit with partner Teledyne e2v. It will develop a commercially viable ground receiver for satellite QKD.
ROKS – Craft Prospect are hoping to announce confirmed funding for their Responsive Operations for Key Services mission early in 2019. This will seek to prove key QKD components and new operational methods.
When unexpected sub-surface conditions are encountered in building, road or rail infrastructure projects they cause significant delays and cost overruns, particularly if contractors are already onsite and work is underway. Improved early detection of uncharted infrastructure, sinkholes or boreholes promises to have a significant cost impact.
Gravity Pioneer – this project, announced at the Showcase, will be led by RSK with partners Teledyne e2v, Fraunhofer, and Univ. of Birmingham. It will develop a quantum technology gravity gradiometer for commercial site survey applications. Notably this project is led by a potential ‘user’ of the technology, RSK is a leading environmental and engineering consultancy whose clients include companies like BP, Network Rail and HS2.
Understanding investment opportunities
Showcase exhibits covered a wide variety of quantum and enabling technologies at different stages of development. Expertise in these areas typically lies in university research groups and the startups that they spin out. The many startups represented at the Showcase are testament to the growing activity in this sector.
However, many conventional businesses will instantly recognise the typical end-user benefits that these technologies are seeking to deliver. Established businesses have honed expertise in the process of packaging technologies into a viable product, marketing to create demand and creating a successful sales proposition.
The UK programme doesn’t yet have a Google, IBM, Microsoft or Intel, but large companies such as BT, Lockheed Martin, Thales, Leonardo and Airbus have all taken part in projects. Both Toshiba and IDQ have demonstrated that by basing research offices in the UK they can both strongly influence and benefit from the programme. Teledyne e2v was perhaps the most prominent winner from this round of activity. Winning involvement in 3 out of the 4 ISCF pioneer projects announced at the showcase. If companies like its parent Teledyne are influenced to base more of their global quantum R&D efforts in the UK that would illustrate the power of the approach.
Companies setting out to participate in this journey need to understand that this technological revolution is still at an early stage. It is important to anticipate how the technologies and possibilities within the sector are likely to evolve. Fact Based Insight believes that it is useful to understand the relationship that individual technologies have to the underlying drivers of the quantum value chain: enabling technology, single quanta, superposition and entanglement. The progress on display at the Showcase underlines how progress in the sector follows this profile of sophistication.
The future of the UK quantum programme
UK government funding for the first phase of the UKNQT programme (2014-19) was initially £270m and later augmented to £385m. It has undoubtedly been a remarkable success as the explosive growth of the Showcase demonstrates. A whole ecosystem is palpably emerging. Initial funding of £315m for a second phase of the programme (2019-24) has recently been announced.
Headline activity in the first phase of the UKNQT programme has been dominated by the four research hubs covering quantum communications, quantum computing and simulation, quantum imaging and quantum sensing. The second phase will continue the work of these research hubs but is expected to be augmented by a stronger industry programme. This will include Innovation Centres to help provide the facilities and connections for joint industrial projects and further waves of ISCF projects with matched industry funding.
This should be understood against a background of supporting developments. The key agencies managing the funding, EPSRC and Innovate UK, have been brought together within a single overall body – UK Research and Innovation. This enables a cross disciplinary perspective and helps to form a bridge over the ‘valley of death’ between academic research and commercial prototyping. This should benefit many technology areas, but particularly so the development of quantum technologies.
The programme shows the benefits of careful co-ordination at many levels. Investment in advanced manufacturing centres offering research and commercial access has also been an emphasis, as shown by their presence at the Showcase of Kelvin Nanotechnology, CSC, SuperFab, QUES2T, and Added Scientific. Three Centres for Doctoral Training in key quantum disciplines have been established, at Bristol’s QET Labs, UCLQ and Imperial’s CQD. Innovative support for budding entrepreneurs is provided by initiatives such as Bristol’s QTEC.
Research hub proposals for phase two are currently being developed with final decisions to be made in April 2019. However it is already possible to see something of the likely evolving shape of the programme.
Quantum communications – taking the network into space
During 2019-24 we can expect the Communications Hub to continue its focus on the short and medium term opportunities of QKD. The UK Quantum Network testbed will likely be expanded to include satellite and drone based systems. This is in marked contrast to the longer term EU Flagship ‘grand vision’ of a truly quantum internet. This is not a disagreement about the destination, more about how to exploit medium term opportunities. We can also expect a focus on more advanced entanglement based technologies. These offer an even more robust security promise than first generation QKD, and are a gateway to more advanced networking applications. CV QKD is also likely to be further explored, particularly for metropolitan scale network applications. However the UK programme still looks to be DV QKD focused in contrast to the CV emphasis in the initial wave of EU Flagship projects.
Quantum computing and simulation – a focus on scalability
NQIT, the UK quantum research hub focused on computing and simulation is likely to double-down on many aspects of its existing strategy for 2019-24. This includes combining computing and simulation within a single programme (the EU Flagship splits simulation into a separate pillar, perhaps allowing more focus on alternative technologies that can be developed in advance of universal quantum computing). Also we can expect to see the continuation of an integrated hardware and software programme (a separate software hub might seem better placed to take advantage of hardware progress elsewhere in the world).
Sticking with the existing approach would be a sign of faith in the strength of NQIT’s core hardware technology. While Google, IBM, Intel and Rigetti are all pursuing superconducting qubit technology, and Intel and Australian SQC are pursuing silicon spin qubits; NQIT’s core programme focuses on trapped ion qubits and photonic networking. There are strong arguments supporting the NQIT strategy: their trapped ion qubits have significantly better fidelity than any other technology yet demonstrated and networked ion traps offer a clear route to a scalable machine. This is not only important in the long term, but is also a route to a practical NISQ era device. Photonics not only provides a route to network small devices, it is also the essential enabling technology linking multiple areas of the wider quantum technology sector. Crucially it is an area where the UK enjoys a comparative advantage. Involvement will continue with competing technologies, notably through startups OQC (novel ‘coaxmon’ superconducting qubits) and Quantum Motion (silicon spin qubits).
NQIT is perhaps a little behind its original ambitious timeline for demonstrating its Q20:20 concept (now actually a 5:50 qubit/module architecture). However it has made strong progress in both in optical and microwave driven gates. A headline feature of the future programme will be the creation of a UK national quantum computing centre. Where this will be located will be a hotly contested decision.
Quantum imaging – adding entanglement
A separate focus specifically on quantum imaging has been a feature of the UK programme and the many interesting demonstrators on display at the Showcase are a testament to the value of this approach. For 2019-24 we can expect a continued focus on imaging in adverse conditions, and on advanced post-processing and machine learning techniques to combine the advantages of complementary imaging systems. We can also expect more focus on capturing the additional benefits of entanglement based imaging. There will likely be research into quantum radar, though there are clearly reservations in the community about how soon this can offer real benefits (and implicitly some scepticism about the likely real-world performance of the announced Chinese prototype).
Quantum sensing and timing – even smaller
Following on from the prominence of sensing technology in projects such as Gravity Pioneer and CASPA at the Showcase we can expect a continued focus on the development of cold atom technology during 2019-24, in particular further miniaturisation and low-cost engineering. In addition we can expect the programme to be expanded to include other quantum sensing technologies and novel applications. Application centric signal processing and machine learning are also likely to be become prominent in the readout of these devices.
The involvement of the NPL will also continue to be a leading source of strength for atomic clock technology, an area where project KAIROS should help to raise the profile within industry of the risks we face due to reliance on GNSS signals.
Seizing a central role in the future global quantum economy has been widely recognised as a significant prize. Many countries have initiatives pursuing this goal: China, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Japan and Russia have programmes; the EU has launched a Quantum Technology Flagship programme, with notable national initiatives also in Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden; the US is set to enact the NQIA.
Delegates at the QEII can gaze across Parliament Square to enjoy a great view of the Palace of Westminster. It is hard not to ponder how Brexit affects the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s prospects in the global quantum race.
In truth the Showcase offers something for all points of the argument. Brexiteers would be pleased to see a cutting edge economic sector with profound potential where the UK has a truly leading position. Remainers would feel at home amongst the many academics sympathetic to their views, and would point to the essential role being played by European nationals at all levels in the UK programme.
Fact Based Insight believes that the unique nature of academic collaboration means that strong research links will not ultimately be damaged by Brexit, whatever form it takes. Talented researchers from Europe and the wider world will always be welcomed, indeed sought-after, by UK universities. What is much more difficult to foresee is how different patterns of commercial development will be affected. What companies will partner with which centres of quantum innovation? Where will supply chains form? What social and regulatory factors will affect the uptake of these and other new technologies of the fourth industrial revolution, within which quantum technology is caught?
The Europeans discovered quantum mechanics. The Americans invented the idea of quantum computing and with the Canadians quantum cryptography. The Australians can point to their early multidisciplinary work across quantum technologies and China to their recent headline successes. But it is difficult to argue that any other national initiative matches the scope, maturity or pace of that in the UK.
Actions for Business
Fact Based Insight’s recommendations for business across the areas addressed by the UKNQT Programme are covered in detail in our report The Second Quantum Revolution – Actions for Business.