The North Warning System, pictured, will soon be due for an upgrade. Image: Department of National Defence
The Canadian government is investing $2.7 million to develop a powerful new quantum radar technology that would vastly improve detection of objects in the Arctic, including stealth aircraft and missiles, officials said Thursday.The announcement was made at the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC), where scientists are developing a new sensing technique called “quantum illumination” that would allow radar operators to cut through background noise and pinpoint objects with unprecedented accuracy, including those designed to avoid detection.
Funding comes from the Department of National Defence’s All Domain Situational Awareness (ADSA) program, which is focused on “enhanced domain awareness of air, maritime surface and sub-surface approaches to Canada,” especially in the Arctic.
“Quantum radar shows potential for having a far higher sensitivity than we’re able to achieve with conventional radar systems,” Peter Mason, Chief Scientist with Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), the science and technology research arm of DND, told Motherboard in an interview prior to the announcement. ADSA, which falls under DRDC, is investing close to $133 million through to 2020 towards what it calls improved “surveillance solutions.” Thursday’s announcement is part of this investment, and marks DND's first significant investment in what a spokesperson called "next generation" quantum research.It’s easy to understand why Canada would want a powerful radar system to monitor the Arctic. Nations are increasingly interested in the Arctic region and its resources, and for federal politicians in Ottawa, Arctic sovereignty is currently top-of-mind. Beyond that, the North Warning System, a series of unmanned radar sites across the Canadian Arctic, is aging and will soon be due for an upgrade.Other nations, including China, are said to be developing quantum radar technology, adding urgency to the Canadian project.
“There are theoretical limits to what you’re going to get from what I’ll call a classical radar system. We’ve been pushing those for years,” Mason told me. “If quantum radar turns out to be feasible, it will break the limits of what we could do with a classical radar.”Conventional radars send out pulses of radio waves, then listen for signals that bounce off objects of interest, like an echo. But operators of these systems often have to deal with a lot of background noise, whether it’s because of trees, buildings, or mountains. The Arctic region is also more vulnerable to the effects of space weather, including geomagnetic storms and solar flares, which can further interfere with remote sensing methods.Quantum radar would rely on pairs of entangled photons, and a technique called quantum illumination. First the system would produce a pair of entangled photons, then shoot out one of the photons while trapping the other back at the station. When photons are picked up by the receiver, operators would be able to tell if it originated at the station or not.
Entanglement is “like tagging the photons,” associate professor Jonathan Baugh, one of the IQC researchers behind the project, told me. In other words, it allows radar operators to “distinguish entangled ones from a noisy background, and sift out a small signal.”A major challenge, according to Baugh, is producing pairs of entangled photons on demand. “Quantum illumination is still really in its infancy,” he said. Like other quantum technologies, quantum radar isn’t ready to be deployed, although the field is advancing rapidly.Although Baugh was hesitant to provide a timeline, quantum radar is more “near-term” than other projects, he said, like building a universal quantum computer. In under a decade, Baugh said, it’s possible quantum radar prototypes will be ready for testing in the field.Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.