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Quantum sensing: A new frontier for revolutionary technology

Sensors are increasingly commonplace thanks to the internet of things – but the next generation of sensing technology promises dramatic new capabilities

When people think about quantum technologies, they tend to think of complicated new computers. But while the popular press might continue to focus on quantum computing, quantum sensing is a less known, but much broader area that is rapidly approaching the market.

Quantum sensing covers motion – including acceleration, rotation and gravity – electric and magnetic fields, and imaging. The benefits to quantum sensing include:

  • Measuring electric and magnetic fields very accurately across many frequencies.
  • Measuring physical quantities against atomic properties, so there is no drift or need to calibrate.
  • Using quantum entanglement to improve sensitivity or precision.

It will soon be possible to have perfectly accurate navigation under water, to sense changes in gravity that reveal potential volcanic activity, climate change and earthquakes, to monitor brain activity on the go, and even to see round corners. And in our everyday lives, quantum sensing will secure navigation, enhance medical imaging and show us what is beneath our feet.

One of the assumptions at the heart of modern life is the constant availability and accessibility of time and location data. Tiny outages can have massive economic consequences – beyond driving, reliable navigation is also core to aerospace, fishing, supply chains, emergency services and even the stock market. It is at the heart of the black box that an insurer will offer you for your car and will one day underpin the driverless car.

However, current navigation systems rely on GPS, which depends on a radio receiver that is quite easy to jam and mislead. In fact, with the right specialist knowledge, you can now create a system that fakes a GPS signal with hardware that costs a couple of hundred dollars.

The signals used by quantum navigation systems are very hard to fake because they are based on fundamental properties of nature. The result is a system that is secure against accidents, failures or malicious attacks.

Currently, MRI scanners generate 3D models of a brain that doctors use to diagnose, monitor and treat neurological diseases and physical traumas. They are expensive, large, noisy and need the patient to be perfectly still.

Quantum-enabled imaging will make smaller, portable systems possible. It will even be possible to create systems that can monitor the magnetic fields from patients’ brains as they go about their daily lives. This would generate more, and more valuable, data for clinicians while easing the stress on patients.

Other exciting applications include autonomous cars, as certain quantum sensors can see round corners, and defence, where extremely sensitive magnetic systems could detect underwater objects such as submarines.

The oil, gas and minerals industries rely on knowing where raw materials are located. Energy and utility companies need to know where their pipes are. Defence and law enforcement often need to find tunnels. And even archaeologists would love to see a complete picture of long-lost buildings. As obvious as these needs are, they are not easy to fulfil. Technologies such as ground-penetrating radar are good but don’t reach into the ground as far as we would like.

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Quantum sensing can look tens of metres under the ground by mapping the local gravity using cold atom systems. Ground-based systems in research institutes are getting close to the required accuracy, and eventually they will fly from drones. This will be great for a whole range of sectors, making subterranean surveys quick and even improving navigation – no matter how hard you might try, you can’t change the Earth’s gravity without anyone noticing.

Today, these systems are large, complicated and extremely experimental, based on expensive optical components. But this is changing. A recent Innovate UK project, partnered with PA Consulting, created a prototype quantum navigation system that is among the smallest in the world. Second- and third-generation quantum technologies will shrink, with components becoming more commoditised and integrated.

This means quantum sensors will start to come to market in some niche medical and defence applications within three to five years. And in a world that is increasingly reliant on sensors and sensing, they have the potential to provide a significant competitive advantage.

Organisations that rely on all forms of sensors need to be aware of the development of quantum sensing technology or, better still, be among the first to take advantage of this new way of looking at the world around us.

Deploying such an ingenious technology will mean thinking about the information you need from sensors and identifying whether quantum, classical or hybrid systems are best. This requires an understanding of how you gather, value and exploit data, rather than a deep understanding of quantum physics.

Quantum sensing will be disruptive. The question is, who will take advantage?

Richard Claridge is a quantum expert at PA Consulting.

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