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Heriot-Watt joins project to develop ‘unhackable’ 5G infrastructure

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It will work with BT and other partners on end-to-end quantum-secured communications.

Scientists from Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University have secured “six-figure” funding from the government-backed initiative, Innovate-UK*, for the AIRQKD project led by BT.

The project’s goal is to develop practical quantum key distribution (QKD) transmitter and receiver modules for short range terrestrial applications which will be central components for quantum-secured communications, end to end, for 5G and connected cars.

The technology will form a central component in a world-first trial of end-to-end quantum-secured communications for 5G and connected cars.

QKD is billed as an unhackable technique for sharing encryption ‘keys’ between locations using a stream of encoded single photons (quantum bits).

Free space and fixed fibre

The project, called AIRQKD, combines BT’s expertise in building quantum-secure networks using QKD with new techniques for applying quantum security to mobile devices.  

Heriot-Watt’s work will support BT and other project partners to harness fibre and free-space networks with quantum-enhanced security chips in mobile devices for the first time.

The ambition is to create the world’s most secure fixed-mobile communications link.

Free-space optical communications use light propagated in free space – that is, air, outer space, or vacuum – as opposed to fibre optic, for instance. It is useful where physical connections are impractical due to high costs or other factors.

Transmit and receive

The Heriot-Watt team has expertise of practical QKD and will lead the design, testing, and construction of the QKD transmitter and receiver prototypes.

The team will also support other project partners developing novel single-photon source and detector technologies for the commercial products. This part of the trial will run for 36 months.

*The full trial is funded by £7.7 million from the Quantum Technologies Challenge, led by UK Research and Innovation. AIRQKD is an Innovate UK funded project involving the following partners: BT, Lexden Technologies, OLC, Duality, Bristol University, Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics, Strathclyde University, Warwick University Manufacturing Group, Bay Photonics, Heriot-Watt University, Angoka, ArQit, Nu Quantum, National Physical Laboratory, CSA Catapult, Edinburgh University.