Home5GBT, Toshiba deploy unhackable quantum-secure fibre for Industry 4.0 data transfers

BT, Toshiba deploy unhackable quantum-secure fibre for Industry 4.0 data transfers

BT and Toshiba have deployed an unhackable six-kilometre length of quantum encrypted fibre optic cable for transfer of highly sensitive data between different industrial facilities. It is the first deployment in the UK of a quantum-secure point-to-point fibre network, for sharing encryption ‘keys’ between locations using a stream of single photons.

The new fibre network, funded by UK innovation agency Innovate UK, uses Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) to ensure ultra-secure data transmissions. It runs between the National Composites Centre (NCC), a UK composite research and development facility, and the Centre for Modelling and Simulation (CFMS), a not-for-profit research organisation that pioneers new digital engineering capabilities. 

The facilities are in Emerson’s Green and Filton in North Bristol, respectively. The University of Bristol is also involved. The solution is being used to replace physical transportation of sensitive data on portable storage devices between the NCC and CFMS sites. The new cable allows both data and encryption keys to be transmitted at high speed as a stream of single ‘encoded’ photons over standard Openreach fibre.

QKD enables two parties to produce a shared random secret key known only to them, which can be used to encrypt and decrypt messages. The technique, which employs components of quantum mechanics, allows the parties to detect if a third party tries to eavesdrop on the communication.

Toshiba’s QKD system enables the distribution of thousands of cryptographic keys per second. Its multiplexing compatibility allows the data and the quantum keys to be transmitted on the same fibre, eliminating the need for dedicated infrastructure for key distribution. While the new deployment covers a range of six kilometres, the range can extend to 120 kilometres, to run between major metropolitan environments.

The network also benefits from the Japan-based firm’s Active Stabilisation technology, which allows the system to distribute key material continuously, in even challenging operating conditions, without any user intervention. This avoids the need for recalibration of the system due to temperature-induced changes in the fibre lengths, said BT.

Andrew Lord, head of optical technology at BT, said: “This is a significant milestone as we move towards a quantum-ready economy… The power of quantum computing offers unprecedented opportunity for UK industry, but this is an essential first step to ensure its power can be harnessed in the right way and without compromising security.”

Andrew Shields, head of quantum technology at Toshiba Europe, said: “We are delighted to help [to] secure sensitive design and manufacturing data shared between their sites. Our solution can be implemented on standard BT fibre infrastructure and is applicable to a wide range of different applications, allowing organisations to ensure the long-term security of their data and protect it from even the most powerful computers.

The UK government said last month it wants to be the “world’s first quantum-ready economy”, and to provide UK businesses and industries with “billions of pounds worth of opportunities” via commercially-available quantum computing. By 2024, quantum computing is expected to provide £4 billion of “economic opportunities” globally, it said. Productivity gains from quantum computing will surpass over £341 billion globally.

The UK’s first quantum computer is to be built in Abingdon, in Oxfordshire, with £10 million of government and industry funding. Quantum computing is presented as a panacea for complex problem solving in industries like pharmaceuticals, aerospace, and transport. “This technology could help accelerate new drug treatments, improve global supply chains, and cut road traffic in towns and cities,” the government said.

Notably, it will also underpin the UK’s Industry 4.0 push, alongside its new spectrum policy around industrial 5G networking. BT is engaged in various 5G-related Industry 4.0 efforts, including as the lead technology partner for the Worcestershire 5G Testbed (W5G), billed as the UK’s first live private 5G network. Private 5G is the ‘only’ way for Industry 4.0, it said last month. 

The company is also running an Industry 4.0 ‘Disneyland’ at its Adastral Park science campus, showcasing new industrial technologies including IoT, artificial intelligence (AI), and augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) for sectors such as manufacturing, retail, banking, healthcare, and city management.

Last month, the UK also announced a new National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC) as part of the UK’s £1 billion National Quantum Technologies Programme. The NQCC will open in 2022. Marc Funnell, head of digital at the NCC, said: “Enabling higher levels of collaborative access for the distributed supply chain, [quantum computing] will unlock the potential for industrial IoT, where ultra-secure transmission and sharing of data is crucial.”

Funnel is also director of the Digital Engineering Technology and Innovation (DETI) initiative, a strategic programme of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), which will make use of the new quantum-secured fibre connection between the NCC and CFMS sites in Bristol. 

He commented: “The quantum-secure link will demonstrate the potential for the distributed offsite control of factories. Linked with 5G-Encode, this will provide access to a 5G industrial test bed at the NCC which will showcase the security, reliability and connectivity required to advance UK manufacturing.”

Nathan Harper, head of engineering compute services at CFMS, said: “As more enterprises embrace digital technologies in different ways, securing the transmission of data becomes more critical. CFMS is pioneering the use of digital engineering, deploying technologies such as AI or digital twins in which the secure transmission of data becomes essential.

“Being part of the QKD trial, sharing data using advanced encryption techniques and understanding the performance of these with our partners is therefore both exciting and very useful.”

Besides the new deployment with BT, Toshiba has multiple proofs-of-concept (PoCs) globally, it said, including sites in the US and Japan, working across healthcare and financial services.

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