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Singapore And UK To Jointly Build Quantum Key Distribution Test Satellite

Researchers at the Centre for Quantum Technologies in Singapore have expertise in building rugged and compact QKD instruments for spaceflight. Photograph courtesy of CQT.

Singapore’s National University of Singapore (NUS) and the United Kingdom’s Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) RAL Space have signed an agreement that paves the way for the joint building of a Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) test satellite to be launched by late 2021.

Early demonstration of new quantum space technologies, through the latest collaboration between the UK and Singapore governments, could lead to more secure online activity for consumers in everything from financial transactions to online conversations.

The £10 million initiative between the UK and Singapore governments is to build and fly a satellite quantum key distribution (QKD) test bed.  Through this collaboration, Singapore and the UK will co-develop QKD Qubesat, a satellite based on the CubeSat standard that will use a pioneering QKD technology to test the secure distribution of cryptographic keys over globe-spanning distances.

Satellite-based QKD is emerging as an un-breakable communication technology, far more secure than existing encryption techniques.  This new joint quantum technology satellite mission opens access to a global market thought to be worth up to U.S.$15 billion (£11.5 billion) over the next ten years. The collaboration aims to build on both countries’ efforts to grow the space and quantum technologies sectors by staking a claim in the emerging QKD market.

In the UK, work will be led by the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) RAL Space, which will contribute its expertise in innovative space technology and optical links needed for beaming QKD signals.  In Singapore, work will be led by the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) at the National University of Singapore (NUS), which will contribute its expertise in the building of rugged and compact QKD instruments.

The UK’s Science Minister, Sam Gyimah, said, “Science has no borders and this is a brilliant example of our world leading space sector using technology to benefit consumers, keeping our data safer than ever before.”

“Our commitment to science is at the heart of our modern Industrial Strategy and international collaborations are vital to putting the UK on the world stage as an innovation superpower,” he added.

The UK investment in this programme is part of the British Industrial Strategy commitment to develop new manufacturing and export opportunities for the UK space sector and vital infrastructure for UK telecommunications as well as safety and resilience for the country. The QKD Qubesat mission is closely aligned with the UK National Quantum Technology Programme which has established close links with industry in the UK and overseas and is exploring a diversity of technical approaches for commercial benefits to be gleaned.

Collaboration with Singapore in this field takes place against the backdrop of strong and deep links between the two countries in a wide range of science and innovation fields, recognised through the signing of a bilateral Innovation and Research Partnership in 2014.

Existing systems to facilitate the secure electronic transfer of information are becoming increasingly vulnerable. The public key algorithms that handle the secret keys to lock and unlock encryption will be easily broken as quantum computers come into use. These systems currently underpin the security of 99% of the world’s data communications from mobile banking and payment systems to smart home devices.

Quantum Key Distribution provides an alternative that can be seamlessly integrated onto the network systems we already use. It is resistant to all known computational attacks, including from future quantum computers.

Dr. Chris Mutlow, Director of STFC RAL Space, said, “As the UK’s national laboratory for innovative space technology development, this is exactly the kind of mission we are here for. Alongside our international partners, we will provide a vehicle for technology readiness-raising and rapid space qualification of quantum technologies. This mission puts the UK ahead of our competitors in quantum communications. It will enable the space sector to tap into new manufacturing and export opportunities that will help the UK achieve its ambition of capturing a 10% share of the estimated £40 billion global space market by 2030.”

A space-based QKD system will ensure security over national and international distances, at a lower cost to alternative, ground based fibre infrastructure.

Mr. George Loh, Director of Programmes at the National Research Foundation (NRF) in Singapore, said, “Singapore has developed deep research capabilities in quantum technologies through our past investments in the Centre for Quantum Technologies. Singapore and UK share the same outlook to leverage research and innovation to develop capabilities and derive benefits for our respective countries. This collaboration with UK is significant for both countries, in bringing together our experts to demonstrate satellite-based QKD communication capability. Singapore will also bring in local companies to develop and commercialise products and services in the QKD market, as well as other forms of space and quantum technologies.”​

Dr. Artur Ekert, Director of CQT, said, “Having access to quantum-secured communication is a smart step for cybersecurity. We already have trials over fibre for secure communication within Singapore, building on CQT’s decade of development of this quantum technology. Reaching into space with our UK partner is a strategic move towards global data security.”

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