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AFRL Quantum research advances 3C capabilities in future Air, Space and Cyber operations

  • Published
  • By Marc Denofio
  • Air Force Research Laboratory

The Air Force Research Laboratory or AFRL, is always looking for new ways to stay ahead of the competition; quantum is no exception. Quantum has many areas to explore, from sensing to computing, all using principles of quantum mechanics to process data. It is a relatively new technology in terms of application, but its promises for future capabilities are of great interest to the Air Force.

“I tell people I shoot lasers at atoms to make them do interesting things,” said Dr. Kathy-Anne Soderberg, research physicist at AFRL's Information Directorate, in Rome, New York. “Just to clarify, shooting lasers at atoms does not mean we have Photon Torpedoes yet,” referring to the sci-fi television series Star Trek.

Dr. Soderberg and other scientists and researchers are advancing quantum technologies from the individual quantum bit or qubit, level to the system level, where different qubit types must interface. This work is helping the U.S. military to accelerate quantum research and development as first adopters of connected ultra-secure quantum communication and move the ball forward for use.

“Quantum states and hence qubits are extremely fragile and sensitive to external disturbances, making them the best sensors in the world,” said Soderberg. “Therefore, to control, manipulate and exploit qubits, these systems must be isolated from these disturbances, but how depends on the specific type of qubit.”

One type, called superconducting qubits, must be cooled to a level close to the absolute minimum temperature, around 15 millikelvins. That makes the inside of a quantum computer the coldest place in the universe, colder than outer space. The unit that houses the qubits is called a dilution refrigerator and was shown in the 2020 FX Networks television show “Devs.”

The research at AFRL and other national labs in quantum computing has the potential to revolutionize military operations. For example, it can be used to create more efficient algorithms for analyzing data, which can help to identify patterns and trends that the enemy could exploit. It could also create more secure communication systems, as quantum computing is much harder to hack into than traditional computing systems since the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics protect the system.

The potential of quantum communication use by the military relies on its promise to enable 'ultra-secure' data communication, potentially creating more efficient and secure communication systems. The current data exchange relies on electrical signals representing '1s' and 0s' running through optical fiber cables. Adversaries who tap into these communications can read and copy those bits as they travel.

In quantum communication, the information is encoded in a qubit or quantum particle in a superposition of '1' and '0'. However, when the quantum states are introduced to external disturbances, such as a hacker trying to capture what information is being transmitted, the qubit 'collapses' to randomly giving either a '1' or a '0' – no useful information is obtained.

Secondly, because this particle is entangled (perfectly correlated) with another qubit, it can sense on the other qubit that a hacker has gotten in. These two properties of quantum mechanics superposition, and entanglement, make the system both tamper-proof and tamper evident.

"This type of communication on the battlefield can have tremendous advantages for our warfighters,” said Dr. Michael Fanto, a research physicist at AFRL's Information Directorate. “For example, providing warfighters with information processing and network functionalities fundamentally differs from current technology."

AFRL's Information Directorate has laid the groundwork for future quantum networking and distributed quantum computing applications. With advances in remote network connectivity nodes and the mapping of quantum information from individual trapped ions to photon-based qubits, the longer-term goal of distributing quantum entanglement between distance network nodes can enable secure quantum networks, ensuring that information is kept entirely safe.

Quantum information is a relatively young field in terms of physics. Still, it could be a highly disruptive technology because it differs from what we know. We had never encountered this phenomenon before, said Fanto.

It also requires new developments in computing, like neuromorphic computing, which takes inspiration from biological brains to create energy-efficient designs. A classic computer tries to navigate a maze by trying each path, one after another. A quantum computer tries each potential approach simultaneously, dramatically reducing the time necessary to find the solution.

Computers utilizing the laws of quantum mechanics could exponentially increase the speed of computation for the Air Force, enabling the warfighter to act more quickly, a key component of success in any conflict, Fanto said.

To assist AFRL and the USAF in advancing quantum initiatives, AFRL’s Information Directorate has been an IBM quantum hub for several years, programming pathfinding problems to find the research areas that a quantum computer can excel. Even more recently, AFRL has announced a research partnership with PsiQuantum, one of several quantum announcements at the Information Directorate. With PsiQuantum, AFRL is researching to offer quantum photonic chips co-designed and manufactured at GlobalFoundries, a semiconductor chip fab in Malta, New York.

To accelerate the path to building the world's first utility-scale quantum computer, AFRL's Information Directorate is working with another research partner, IonQ, to modernize quantum computing research systems. The work between AFRL, IonQ, PsiQuantum and many others seeks to deliver state-of-the-art technology to AFRL to support quantum computing hardware research and development.

Additionally, it enables the Air Force to focus on proactively innovating our peer competitors to ensure that public and private infrastructure in the U.S. has the technology required to assure our nation's dominance and that new capabilities are available whenever and wherever needed by our warfighters, said Fanto.

With these developments, AFRL and partners are working collaboratively to advance research on superconducting and hybrid quantum systems to develop novel superconducting architectures and cross-qubit modality quantum interface hardware that will be building blocks for use in quantum networking.

"The importance of cybersecurity readiness against would-be adversaries developing quantum systems is critical to the national security of the U.S. and our allies," said Dr. Michael Hayduk, deputy director of the Information Directorate at AFRL. "These research partnerships solidify AFRL's long-term strategic research in the quantum area, including computing and networking, and help accelerate critical quantum science and technology programs, benefiting AFRL as we seek to maintain our competitive advantage and advance our national security interests."

Scientists at AFRL are the backbone of these new developments in quantum and have partnered with academia and industry leaders worldwide to speed up these advancements in military technology, not just in Central New York; but also, at other AFRL locations in New Mexico and Ohio as well as across the globe, said Hayduk. However, in New York, AFRL is at the center of significant developments under the new CHIPs and Science Act.

For example, a new chip fab plant, built by Micron, will make its home steps from the Information Directorate's front gate. AFRL is on the list of partners that will benefit directly from this new state-of-the-art facility to advance research and development in the Quantum processor space.

Moreover, AFRL's list of research partners is growing. Micron joins IBM, WolfSpeed, GlobalFoundries, SUNY Poly's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the Albany NanoTech Complex, and others to assist AFRL in building the research infrastructure for Quantum from Rome to the Hudson Valley and beyond, positioning it as the epicenter of the future of quantum computing.

Hayduk suggests that quantum will lead to technologies that will transform the war-fighting domain in revolutionary and unprecedented ways. “The research that AFRL conducts today is vital to our economy and equally crucial to national security.”

About AFRL 
The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit