US researchers are building a drone-based communication network that would leverage the laws of quantum physics to make information exchange ultra-secure. While this system can prove beneficial in several scenarios, one prominent use case is warfare wherein quantum drones could provide one-time crypto-keys to relay critical messages that spies and enemies would not be able to intercept.
Similar efforts have been made by China before, but this is the first time such a project is being undertaken in the US at the behest of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Florida Atlantic University’s Warner A. Miller is leading the project in concert with quantum tech specialist Qubitekk and defense technology innovator L3Harris.
In addition to drones, this new communication network would include a ground station, lasers, and fiber optics to share quantum-secured information. But how does quantum communication work?
The phenomenon involves a pair of particles of light or photons that are generated in such a way that while the individual quantum states of each are indefinite, they are still correlated. As such, the act of measuring one instantaneously determines the result of measuring the other, even when they are at a great distance from one another.
This phenomenon was referred to by Albert Einstein as “Spooky Action at a Distance.” Einstein noted that quantum mechanics should allow two objects to affect each other’s behavior instantly across vast distances as if the two are connected by a mysterious communication channel.
A. Matthew Smith, a senior research physicist at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Information Directorate, points out that the potential of secure communication from a portable quantum communication drone in contested environments can have important future capabilities for the Air Force. Here’s Smith:
The combination of quantum communication and unmanned aerial systems or drones in this project represents an important advance in the Air Force’s efforts to create fieldable quantum systems for the warfighter.
Arthur Herman, senior fellow and director of the Quantum Alliance Initiative at Hudson Institute and one of the nation’s foremost quantum experts in defense, energy, and technology issues, stresses that the project represents a new stage in the development of two emerging technologies. Herman says:
For quantum, it’s a major step toward creating hack-proof quantum communication networks that will eventually span the globe, including in space. For drones and UAVs, it’s another milestone in their evolution as the workhorses of the Air Force for a wide range of missions and capabilities.
Florida Atlantic University’s Miller says that the eventual plan is to incorporate quantum memory in the drones so that they can conduct error correction, relay, and store information. According to Miller:
We are just scratching the surface of something that is going to amplify into a lot of different applications. This technology is not only going to be on drones or robots. Eventually, we will have this secure communication technology on buildings and satellites that will open up a free space optical link between them. The only limit is your imagination.