Quantum sensing use cases

Executive summary

Quantum sensors are devices that leverage the quantum properties of a system to measure forces, fields, or time. In the late 20th century, the development and proliferation of clocks based on atomic vapors helped drive revolutionary advances in communications and absolute positioning systems such as GPS, among others. While atomic clocks continue to be a success story in the quantum sensing arena, sensors based on the quantum properties of atomic vapors, solid state defects, and superconducting circuits are now being used to make high performance measurements of inertial forces and electromagnetic fields. Though the performance of these quantum sensors is often compelling, they typically compete in crowded application spaces against mature, commercially available devices based on classical sensing principles. Given the considerable resources required to transition nascent quantum technologies from the prototype stage to designs that are both deployable and manufacturable in volume, there is a need to identify use cases for which these devices could provide revolutionary advances relative to current commercial offerings. This report identifies several such use cases and is based on briefs and discussion that occurred during a March 2022 workshop hosted by the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C) and attended by more than 300 representatives from industry, academia, and government.

The basic value proposition of emerging classes of quantum sensors can generally be divided into two categories. First, they may provide novel capabilities and/or performance levels not available with classical state of the art sensors. Second, they may provide comparable capabilities and performance to existing sensors but in a more compelling size, weight, power, or cost envelope. With both possibilities in mind, this report identifies high-priority use cases for quantum sensors in assured positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT), communications, and remote sensing (magnetometry).

To facilitate progress toward realizing robust, high-performance sensors to support the use cases above, this report also makes the following observations and recommendations for the joint community of quantum sensor developers and end users:

  1. Deeper engagement is required between quantum sensor developers and targeted user communities to ensure that sensors meet or exceed user requirements and are robust against realistic environmental conditions in areas of greatest benefits.
  2. Sensor developers and their financial backers should acknowledge that design paradigm shifts from “lab-in-a-box” approaches to robust, deployable architectures are often necessary, time-consuming, and costly.
  3. Government-sponsored technology development pipelines generally do not promote cradle-to-grave maturation of technologies. Community-wide discussion of methods for making these pipelines more efficient to minimize the valley of death is worthwhile and
  4. Government organizations should consider approaches for improving access to commercial-type testbeds and platforms to better support high-fidelity emulation of realistic operating conditions for promising quantum sensor variants. Such access would reduce financial burdens on small quantum sensor startups while ensuring that the government gains insight into sensor capabilities in real-world conditions.
  5. Additional investment in the development of key enabling technologies is required. Advances in the performance and portability of lasers, vacuum components, photonic integrated chips, quantum transducers, and low noise electronics (among others) is required to benefit a range of quantum technologies in the sensing space and beyond.