Thales at the forefront of quantum sensors and communication

At Thales, about a hundred engineers and physicists are dedicated to the future of quantum science. “This workforce will grow”, says Marko Erman, scientific director of Thales. The electronics group in aerospace, defense, transport and digital security is just as dependent on quantum technology as on artificial intelligence.

Thales has a quantum physics laboratory in its technological research center on the Ecole polytechnique campus in Saclay (Essonne). It has also set up a joint laboratory with the CNRS, the Joint Physics Unit 137, of which Albert Fert, the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics, is the scientific leader.

Sensors with unsurpassed precision

The second quantum revolution is underway … After designing the atomic clocks for the satellites in the Galileo navigation system, Thales is considering new applications in sensors, communications networks and computers. The group has designed active gallium arsenide antennas for the radars of Rafale fighter jets, which track dozens of aircraft at a time.

The next technology will use superconducting connections cooled to -200 degrees Celsius to make antennas that capture all frequencies at the same time. “Tomorrow we will build an antenna a million times smaller with superconducting materials that can be used on a defense drone!” explains Marko Erman. It now requires instruments the size of a truck to achieve this capability, as low frequencies require large antennas.

The medical sector will also be able to benefit from these advances. Solid-state quantum sensors, such as the NV color centers in diamond, measure very weak magnetic fields. “These quantum sensors can come out in defense in five to ten years”, says Marko Erman. They can also be used for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). “This will make it possible to manufacture a smaller MRI machine that we can move to the patients”, assures the researcher. It will be able to measure the electromagnetic waves of 10 to 100 hertz emitted by the brain to obtain high-resolution images.

Quantum sensors will also improve the accuracy of inertial devices used in aircraft to land in the event of GPS errors. The gyrolas of the inertia units will be replaced by cold atoms. Cooled to almost absolute zero at -273 degrees, these atoms emit waves with much better precision than current optical devices. Thus, the landing precision of a Paris-New York flight oriented using an inertia unit with quantum sensors could reach one meter instead of a few kilometers today. These facilities will also be used for submarines.

Securing communication

Communication is another area of ​​application. Thales wants to secure networks by providing inviolable encryption keys based on the quantum properties of light. It involves sending encryption and decryption keys to a communications network with a photon’s quantum state as the key. The group knows how to do it for a point-to-point link. “In a European experiment, we installed a fiber optic connection tens of thousands of kilometers with a quantum encryption code”explains Marko Erman.

Thales is now working on a quantum network using satellite communications and distribution of coded information over terrestrial networks. With the European Space Agency, the group contributes to the European Euro QCI project, which aims to implement a network secured with a quantum key. Thales is responsible for designing the network’s architecture with the University of Nice and part of the space technology at the Institut quantique occitan in Toulouse.

Future quantum computers will have infinitely much greater computing power that will be used for weather forecasts, air traffic control, protein modeling, etc. The group is therefore studying a communication cryptology that will resist the decryption of a quantum computer. “We are well on our waywelcomes Marko Erman. We are part with IBM of the two finalists in the competition organized by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the United States to find the best algorithm. The encryption standard will be chosen this year and practical cryptology will be released in two years. »

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