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UK organisations join quantum comms pilot

Four UK companies are taking part in a pilot project to build the most secure communication infrastructure in Europe

Toshiba Research Europe (TREL), BT, the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and the University of Cambridge are to join a pilot project to install a test quantum communication infrastructure across Europe.

The OPENQKD pilot project is aimed at boosting the security of critical applications in the fields of telecommunications, healthcare, electricity supply and government services.

Within the OPENQKD project, TREL will adapt its quantum key distribution (QKD) technology to demonstrate use cases for quantum security in networks in several European cities.

Proponents of QKD technology say it promises unprecedented secrecy, assures that organisations can protect their critical data from attacks enabled by quantum computers, and is essential to future communications systems worldwide and keeping critical data safe for years to come.

The laws of quantum mechanics mean that any attempt to intercept communications will introduce anomalies that can be detected immediately. QKD uses quantum mechanics to guarantee secure communication for two parties to share secret keys for encrypting and decrypting messages.

TREL will supply commercial-grade QKD systems to the networks, while BT will contribute its expertise on the requirements needed for robust operation in a network provider environment. 

The networks will provide a testbed for the long-term verification of QKD technology, as well as a platform to develop applications in different sectors and industrial standards. 

Healthcare use cases, developed through a collaboration between the University of Cambridge, TREL and BT, will be a particular focus of a network linking several biotech campuses in Cambridge, which has one of the highest concentrations of health sector companies in Europe. 

The development of industrial standards, as well as a security evaluation process, for quantum technology in Europe is another important aspect of the OPENQKD project, to which NPL, BT and TREL will contribute strongly.   

Read more about quantum key distribution

Standards are essential for ensuring interoperability of QKD equipment and other devices in the network, enabling their seamless integration. They are also important for ensuring new products are implemented in a secure manner and with no potential vulnerabilities. The project will also develop ways in which the security of QKD systems can be tested against the published standards.

Andrew Shields, assistant managing director at Toshiba’s Cambridge lab, said quantum communication technology is maturing rapidly, with several large networks now in operation around the world.

“OPENQKD has a focus on developing and demonstrating use cases for QKD technology, which will accelerate its commercial adoption in a number of different market sectors,” he said. “We are delighted to contribute to this ecosystem of companies developing complete solutions that will secure the future IT infrastructure of European businesses and citizens.” 

Andrew Lord, head of optical research at BT, said his company has been trialling QKD technology for several years and sees potential for its commercial exploitation in telecom networks. 

“In OPENQKD, we will be developing the necessary tools and knowledge for integration into operator networks and customer applications,” he said.

Hannes Hübel, scientist at the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology and project leader of OPENQKD, said: “After successfully demonstrating the basic concept of QKD, quantum-based cryptography has achieved a mature state and we are proud to lift quantum technology now onto a market-ready level – ready to be deployed in everyday-life applications.”

Read more about quantum computing

The European Commission chose to fund the OPENQKD project after a Horizon 2020 call for proposals in 2018. Its mission is to develop an experimental testbed based on QKD and to test the interoperability of equipment supplied by different manufacturers.

OPENQKD’s activities will take place in 22 countries across Europe, including the UK, and will focus on key fields of operations, especially the telecommunications sector, where data traffic in transit and at rest needs to be secured.

Other applications, such as securing medical and governmental data or the transmission of secure control signals in the electricity grid, will also be demonstrated and evaluated.

OPENQKD will also address the development of a European ecosystem for quantum technology providers and application developers. It will work to identify new use-cases by supporting startups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as well as offering modern test facilities to new quantum stakeholders.

A further objective for the project is to devise standards and security certifications for this infrastructure.

The OPENQKD project is set to run for three years and will have a budget of €15m. Its consortium consists of 38 partners from 13 EU member states and Horizon 2020 associated states.

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