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Heriot-Watt to Develop Short-range Quantum Encryption for 5G

Michael Behr

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quantum encryption
While quantum encryption has been demonstrated using satellites and cables, short-range transmission through Earth’s atmosphere has a range of challenges.

Heriot-Watt University will help develop methods of quantum encryption thanks to six-figures of funding from Innovate UK.

The work is part of a BT-led project, called AIRQKD, and will develop practical quantum key distribution (QKD) transmitter and receiver modules for short range terrestrial applications.

Heriot-Watt’s work will support BT and its other project partners to create an ultra-secure link between connected 5G towers and mobile devices. The ambition is to create the world’s most secure fixed-mobile communications link.

The technology will form a central component in a world-first trial of end-to-end quantum-secured communications for 5G and connected cars.

QKD is an un-hackable technique for sharing encryption ‘keys’ between locations using a stream of encoded single photons (quantum bits). Keys are the method by which data is encrypted, and function like a password – when data is transmitted, the key encrypts the data and when the data is received it can only be decrypted with a corresponding key.

By using QKD, the encryption keys can be shared between legitimate users without the risk of them being intercepted.

The Heriot-Watt team brings essential expertise of practical QKD by leading the design, testing, and construction of the QKD transmitter and receiver prototypes. The team will also support other project partners developing novel single-photon source and detector technologies for the commercial products.

The trial, which will run for 36 months, will see the development of a wide range of quantum-secured scenarios in which the security of data transfer is especially important.

Dr Ross Donaldson from Heriot-Watt University explains: “Our focus is on how to create a core to this system that will still operate in very tough conditions. Up to now, most quantum communication research has concentrated on the integrity of long-range signals, but this is about delivering a constant service at short distances through the broad range of weather conditions which can cause connection issues.

“As our connected world becomes increasingly complex, the security of systems must keep pace with technological developments. Automated vehicles in the future will have their own connected systems with software updates being supplied from a central source. It is essential that these updates are sent securely without the risk of hacking or malicious tampering. Quantum-enabled technology provides a greater level of reassurance to manufacturers.”


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A similar project was recently undertaken by the University of Strathclyde, which aims to use quantum encryption to create a secure global communications network.

Professor Andrew Lord, BT’s head of optical network research, said: “We are thrilled to have brought together leading UK partners from industry and academia in the AIRQKD project.

“Heriot-Watt University brings unique skills and with their expertise, we will demonstrate a fully integrated Free Space Optics plus Quantum Key Distribution field trial. This will provide the essential security needed for future 5G applications such as autonomous vehicles.”

The full trial is funded with £7.7 million by the Quantum Technologies Challenge, led by UK Research and Innovation.

Michael Behr

Senior Staff Writer

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