LA TRIBUNE – How will quantum disrupt the space industry?
MATHIAS VAN DEN BOSSCHE – Quantum technologies will not only disrupt space, but the entire world. We are on the threshold of another quantum revolution. The first was the one who brought industrialization electronics and laser 50 years ago.
There are currently three new quantum technologies: computer, communication and quantum sensors. Thales is involved in two of these areas. We leave the manufacture of quantum computers to Google or IBM who have already addressed these issues. On the other hand, Thales is researching quantum sensors, which can take various forms: atomic clocks, cold atomic accelerometers, superconducting sensors, or which use impurities in diamonds. These sensors make it possible to measure electromagnetic fields with much greater precision than what we have done so far. The Thales teams in the Palaiseau are particularly interested in this.
At Thales Alenia Space in Toulouse, we position ourselves in quantum communication with two types of services. First, quantum physics makes it possible to generate strings of random numbers externally without exchanging them so that they are completely confidential. It is therefore possible to develop encryption keys to secure communication in an extremely powerful way.
The second service is quantum information network. It is a way of connecting computers or quantum sensors to build high-performance measuring or calculating instruments. By connecting two sensors, it is possible to create mega sensors. Analogously, by connecting two quantum computers, we can form a quantum megacomputer. This network will have even more computing power than can be done with isolated quantum computers. Enough to solve scientific problems that are currently unsolvable with conventional computers.
In particular, Thales contributes to the European EuroQCI project, which aims to implement such a quantum network. What can you tell us about this?
Quantum technologies were completely invented in Europe between 1995 and 2010. But today, the Chinese have taken a significant lead over us (a team of Chinese scientists announced in January in the journal Nature that they had set up a network of quantum communication, bringing together 150 users, editorial note).
The European Commission decided to take the problem in hand to create a really complete communication system that would bring us to the level of the Chinese. The purpose of this infrastructure is again to put Europe at the forefront of quantum communication. The project has both a space component and a terrestrial component. Thales is involved in both aspects.
Who could benefit from these ultra-secure communications thanks to quantum technologies?
The first users would be governments. Quantum communication could be used to secure exchanges between the offices of the European Commission, between the embassies of the Member States and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, connections between the governments of the Member States. The second level of application is to ensure internal communication, critical European infrastructures, e.g. electricity distribution and air traffic control networks, health systems, banks. Later, as it will take time to pass on a mass market, quantum technology will make it possible to ensure communication between e.g. individuals and banks.
Other uses that we have not thought of will definitely appear in the next 50 years. The inventors of the Internet in the 1960s just wanted to exchange files between computers. And then there were emails, the web, social networks, and so on.
And when should we expect the arrival of quantum communication?
The first step is to demonstrate quantum key satellites within the next three to four years. It will take two or three more years to reach an operational service of these quantum keys. And then there will be the quantum information networks, where it will again be necessary to launch demonstrators before the operational commissioning. In summary, these technologies will be operational within the next 15 years.
Can France still win the quantum battle?
We are well located, although we have competitors elsewhere in Germany and Austria. But the important thing is that we have real support, and we expect in particular that the quantum plan announced by the government (which announced a plan of 1.8 billion euros in January, editor’s note) keeps us at the level.
In the southwest, the creation of the Occitan Quantum Institute was announced a few weeks ago. What can this collaboration with researchers bring you?
As an industrialist, we have expressed our need to solve certain research problems. For example, it is necessary to work with the issue of memories that store quantum information. This type of work would then make it possible to better develop quantum communication.