The typical atom has a diameter of just 0.1 to 0.5 nanometers. At that size, you’d need to arrange more than 100,000 atoms side-by-side—yielding the width of a human hair—just to see them with the naked eye.

But don’t let their scant dimensions fool you: Although they’re miniscule, atoms are about to make a major impact.

So predicted Robert “Bo” Ewald during a keynote address Sunday at GEOINT Foreword. According to Ewald, president and CEO of Boulder, Colo.-based ColdQuanta, Inc., a new “Atomic Age” is dawning. Not the kind that smells of nuclear annihilation, but rather the kind that smacks of technological promise and potential.

“It’s a big deal,” Ewald said of quantum technology, for which the fundamental building block—atoms—constitute what he described as the “third wave” of the Information Age, the first and second waves belonging to electrons and photons, respectively. “There’s electrons, photons, and atoms, and we think that with quantum atomics we’ll be able to build a whole set of things that we couldn’t otherwise.”

Ewald devoted the first portion of his address to defining what, exactly, quantum mechanics is—he likened quantization to a kitchen cupboard in which you organize atoms instead of dishes—then spent the balance of his 30-minute keynote exploring what practical ideas and innovations the technology will eventually enable. Just as electronics led to radios and televisions, for example, and photonics to supermarket scanners and LASIK eye surgery, quantum atomics will lead to advances such as super-stealth communications, he predicted.

“What we have demonstrated you will be able to do is harness a collection of cold atoms that emit entangled photon pairs … that we believe, with a fair amount of work, will let us create communication networks that are secure,” explained Ewald, adding such networks would allow users to transmit short, low-bandwidth messages that are “so quiet … that others can’t detect the message was even sent.”

Ewald predicted quantum atomics will also unlock advanced wayfinding; advanced radio frequency sensing; state-of-the-art accelerometers and gyroscopes; and even next-generation positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) capabilities. In fact, he calls the PNT use case QPS—Quantum Positioning System. By using gravity measurements instead of satellite positioning to calculate location, he said, QPS will be able to provide precision navigation and timing in GPS-denied environments.

“Eventually, you’ll be able to have a portable [QPS] that will let your location be private,” continued Ewald, who said the zenith of these and other quantum-based applications will ultimately be quantum computing, which will allow both government and industry to tackle complex problems with unprecedented computing power.

Though it’s still in its infancy, early case studies have emerged at enterprises such as Recruit Holdings, a Japanese company using quantum computing to power a highly targeted hotel recommendation engine; Volkswagen Group, which is developing an application that will use quantum computing to optimize traffic flow; and Japanese automotive components manufacturer DENSO, which is using quantum computing to power robots and optimize operations on its factory floor.

“We’re getting close to having the first production quantum computing applications around optimization for small problems,” Ewald concluded. “We are at the start of this third [phase] of the Information Age—electronics, photonics, and now atomics—and you’re going to see it used in [the geospatial] world in a whole host of applications.” 

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Posted by Matt Alderton