Exploring the impact of quantum technologies on the transport sector

Published: 7 April 2022

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The quantum technologies that are being developed by the UK Government’s four Quantum Technology Hubs will be key for future intelligent climate-friendly transportation systems, capable of detecting potential hazards around corners, equipped with independent, resilient navigation and secure communications.

Secure communications for the UK’s transport sector
Transport is key to society and the economy. This ranges from the haulage of food, medicines, and materials around the world, to the transportation of people commuting to their workplace, children travelling to school and emergency services around the UK relying heavily upon a smooth and resilient transport system. Secure communications are critical to the operability of this system, and without these, major public and economic issues could arise.

Currently, cybersecurity mechanisms securing communications appear sufficient. However, hacking attempts are becoming ever more frequent and sophisticated, with cybersecurity systems becoming more vulnerable with the arrival of powerful quantum computers. Such quantum computers could carry out new hacking calculations that simply cannot be performed with existing (classical) computers. Clearly, the transport sector must act now to future-proof its communications and counter this threat. This is where engaging with the development and integration of quantum communications technologies comes in.

Researchers working on a project funded by the Quantum Communications Hub, based at the University of York, are collaborating with owners and managers of the UK’s railways, Network Rail, and ADVA Optical Networking, to deploy a quantum secured network using specialist quantum systems along track-side dark fibre. The new network will run from York to Manchester and will demonstrate the feasibility of utilising track-side fibre as a sustainable means of deploying intercity quantum networks, paving the way for the deployment of secure communications on a national scale, with the transport sector at the heart of this.

Beyond securing the communication networks that the sector relies heavily upon, there is also the potential to enable secure communications between vehicles themselves. For example, in the not-too-distant future, quantum and post-quantum technologies could enable short-range, free-space secure communications between autonomous vehicles when they arrive on our roads, therefore protecting vehicle passengers, other road users and pedestrians from danger on an individual level.

Independent, resilient navigation
Our everyday reliance on navigation systems is often hugely underestimated, as is the dependence of services on Global Positioning System (GPS), so much so that it has now become known as the ‘invisible utility’. Seven per cent of UK GDP is dependent on the availability of satellite signals, and according to the 2018 Blackett report, the first five days of a GNSS outage comes at a cost of £1bn a day which is far too much dependence on a system often considered to be vulnerable and easily compromised. Society can often sleepwalk into situations which are problematic – we all love the convenience of having sat nav in our cars, but too much of our society, our economy, is dependent on the availability of those weak signals.

The UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing researchers at Imperial College London and the University of Birmingham are developing a standalone quantum navigation system, which does not rely on satellite signals and is therefore invulnerable to the same external risks experienced by GPS, enabling independent navigation ensuring resilient, safe transport. Another significant branch of the QT Hub’s research focuses on improving railway navigation technology in an effort to reduce train delays and increase passenger experience. The project aims to tackle one of the rail sector’s biggest challenges: how to pinpoint the accurate location of a moving train without reliance on GNSS, which will help engineers ensure the health of the railway track. Overcoming this challenge is key to ensuring fewer train delays and increased passenger safety.

Industry collaboration is central to the Quantum Technology Hub’s goal of translating science into real-world applications, and Hub academics are working with Network Rail and other international railway organisations to bring precise, resilient navigation to the rail sector.

The quantum inertial navigation system promises huge benefits to the UK. It will free large sections of our services and many professions from reliance on GNSS and the fear of it failing. As with much of the quantum sensor research at the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing, the system will ensure that the country’s critical infrastructure is more secure and resilient.

Quantum computing and transport
Although quantum computing is still in its infancy, the potential of this emerging technology to change the world cannot be understated. In the same way the development of today’s computer hardware began with a single transistor, research taking place today in the UK Quantum Technology Hub in Computing and Simulation (QCS) is paving the way for hugely sophisticated quantum computers.

Transport is just one of many areas where the power of quantum computing has the potential to change everyday lives. Moving goods releases vast amounts of greenhouse gases each year and even with a shift towards electric vehicles, transport is expensive in terms of both energy and environmental impact. While classical computers are limited in their ability to predict the behaviour of molecular systems, due to the complex interactions between molecules, quantum simulation offers the potential to develop new, more efficient, chemical processes, or develop brand new materials with new properties. Better performing, lighter, and less environmentally damaging batteries, for example, may offer the potential to radically change the way we produce and consume the power used in transportation.

In addition to the development of more climate-friendly vehicles, optimising the routes they take has the potential to make a significant contribution towards more efficient logistics. Calculating the most efficient route between multiple locations is incredibly complex. The more stops there are, the higher the number of possible routes, quickly turning into scenarios with trillions of possible options. Unlike classical computers, which are unable to solve this ‘travelling salesman problem’ within a practical timescale (think tens or even hundreds of years), the ability of quantum computers to simultaneously calculate all possible routes between multiple stops holds the potential to significantly reduce the impact of logistics on the environment.

Imaging through fog, snow and heavy rain
Many government policies and organisations understand intelligent transport will play a fundamental role in the future of global travel. Driving up efficiency of our existing infrastructure to reduce congestion, pollution, and improve safety; we will find quantum imaging has a key role to play.

Intelligent transport is the active combination of current transport conditions with a relevant operator (computer or person) managing the network. This could be information at traffic lights, train stations, or relayed from a vehicle itself. Currently, conditions are monitored through a mix of sensors and cameras that all feed into a computer. The challenge is for these cameras to send concise, reliable, and insightful information for the computer to make quick, proactive decisions. While cameras have improved immensely and made the prospect of intelligent transport systems possible, they have yet to escape several major limitations that quantum imaging is set to overcome.

The UK is no stranger to poor visibility from bad weather. With climate change set to introduce more extreme cases of rain, fog, and snowfall across the UK, cameras that require a clear view will not reliably support the intelligent transport of tomorrow. Indeed, times of poor weather are when intelligent transport systems are most needed. Nighttime provides another challenge with the fundamental requirement for daylight, or energy-consuming street lighting to see with a camera immediately limiting practical uses.

So how will quantum imaging help? Research through QuantIC, the UK Hub for Quantum Enhanced Imaging, in quantum imaging has centered on cameras that can detect the smallest amount of light – a single photon. Hence, despite fierce rain, fog, snow, or nighttime conditions, quantum cameras need only the smallest amount of light to get through, making them reliable. These photons can also be detected from around corners improving the safety of autonomous vehicles and preventing collisions.

Get involved
It is clear that transport is an area where real advances are being made with quantum technologies. The four UK Quantum Technology Hubs are designed to facilitate engagement with industry and drive the commercialisation of quantum research into real world applications. If you have a transportation challenge that you think quantum technology could solve, contact the QT Hubs directly to find out more:

Quantum Communications Hub
UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing
Quantum Computing and Simulation Hub
QuantIC – UK Hub for Quantum Enhanced Imaging

First published: 7 April 2022