Over the last five years, the vision of the original Hub consortium (comprising the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Heriot Watt, Leeds, Royal Holloway, Sheffield, Strathclyde, and the lead York, plus many private companies and public sector bodies) has been to develop quantum secure communications technologies for new markets, enabling widespread use and adoption – from government and commerce through to consumers and the home. Using proven concepts such as quantum key distribution (QKD) systems, the aim was to advance these to a commercialisation-ready stage. Specifically over phase 1, the Hub was focused on delivering:
- Short-range, free-space, QKD systems: enabling many-to-one, short-range, quantum-secured communications, for consumer, commercial and defence markets.
- “QKD-on-a-chip” modules: scaled down and integrated QKD component devices, for producing robust, miniaturised sender, receiver and switch systems.
- Establishment of a UK Quantum Network: which integrates QKD into secure communication infrastructures at access, metropolitan and inter-city scales, thus enabling device and system trials, integration of quantum and conventional communications, and demonstrations for user engagement.
- “Next generation” quantum communications technologies: which includes investigative and exploratory work that addresses QKD vulnerabilities and delivers technologies beyond what is currently available.
By the end of the first phase of the national programme in November 2019, Hub colleagues have made huge progress against all of these deliverables:
- Launched the UK Quantum Network (UKQN), the UK’s first test bed for quantum technologies, encompassing metropolitan-scale (in the cities of Bristol and Cambridge) and intercity optical fibre networks, linking all parts through leveraging the National Dark Fibre Facility (NDFF). The UKQN allows new quantum communications innovations to be tested and demonstrated on real world communication infrastructure. An extension has already been added – UKQNtel – between Cambridge (the Silicon Fen) and BT’s Research Labs at Adastral Park, near Ipswich (the Innovation Martlesham ICT cluster), utilising additional capital funding and BT fibre. These quantum networks use standard telecoms fibre and provide testbeds for application development, technology testing, performance optimisation and user engagement. Key to the establishment of these networks has been strong collaboration with the technology companies ADVA, ID Quantique, Toshiba and the service-provider BT.
- Made major advances in the area of network architecture design through experimentally demonstrating that QKD can be incorporated into a classical network structure for purposes of improved infrastructure and device interoperability on a national scale. The focus on combining “unhackable” quantum security with the next generation of telecommunications networks stems partly from widely reported concerns over security vulnerabilities of emerging 5G networks. The proposed quantum solution enables network operators to offer ultimately secure 5G services while guaranteeing ultra-low latency and high-bandwidth communications. This setup further benefits from state-of-the-art software engineering advances such as Network Function Virtualisation (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN), which in turn render the need for special, dedicated hardware obsolete.
- Fabricated and demonstrated the world’s first chip-to-chip QKD device, allowing information to be exchanged using single photons of light in a quantum state on a scale that could eventually be integrated into mobile devices. Our chip-scale work is aimed at reducing size, weight and power demands, enabling cheaper mass manufacture for eventual wide deployment.
- Demonstrated free-space QKD between a handheld device (e.g. a mobile phone) and a wall mounted terminal (a “quantum ATM”), paving the way for wireless QKD. This will eventually bring QKD security to consumers and individuals when dealing for example with their banking providers, employers, the NHS or government departments and the civil service.
- Developed prototype quantum secured approaches for digital signatures – allowing recipients to ‘sign’ digital messages to confirm they are genuine – and advanced various other “next generation” technologies, beyond basic QKD.
- Progressed the assurance of quantum random number generators (QRNGs). Genuinely random numbers are essential in many forms of cryptography, cryptanalysis, modelling and simulation, and genuine QRNGs have major appeal from their quantum guarantee of irreproducibility of random sequences.
- Led outreach activities to promote understanding of quantum technologies in schools and amongst the general public, and signpost career pathways.