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Quantum drive: Boosting the commercial potential of tech innovations

15 Jan 2024 • 5 minute read

Scottish companies and universities are making real progress in building quantum technologies on a commercial scale.

Quantum technologies are widely predicted to be the next major transformational tech. Secure data transfers and highly accurate navigation systems all benefit from quantum technologies, which many suggest could reshape industries on an unparalleled level. 

Several highly promising quantum initiatives are underway in Scotland. Alongside this, there is a desire to attract investment and ensure the commercial viability of this emerging technology. 

Enabling a quantum revolution

While quantum computing development is still in its early stages, it is frequently referred to as the next big technological milestone. According to GlobalData, the global market for quantum technology could be worth $10 billion (nearly £7.9 million) by 2030. However, the development of reliable components and subsystems will be critical in enabling the quantum revolution. Investment schemes and funding opportunities will be key in nurturing the potential of quantum computing. 

Edinburgh-based Skylark Lasers is attracting considerable attention for its quantum lasers. These are being integrated with gravity sensors, which together can be used in advanced navigation systems.

Fintech companies are also exploring quantum technologies, particularly for encryption. HSBC has announced plans to invest in quantum key distribution methods to enable more secure communications.

Advanced navigation systems with quantum

Unlike traditional navigation systems, quantum lasers and sensors do not rely on satellite signals, making them faster, more precise, and highly resilient. The difference is highlighted when comparing frequency standards.

“Currently, atomic clocks are based on microwave standards,” explains Szutor. “On a normal GPS, that gives you a few metres of accuracy. Unlike GPS navigation systems, [quantum systems] do not require communication with satellites.

“If you go into an optical frequency, which is much higher than a radio or microwave frequency, then you can achieve accuracy that is three orders of magnitude higher. You might even get down to millimetres of precision.”

Existing GPS navigation devices require connectivity to at least three satellites to determine location. However, when signals are lost or interfered with, it presents serious risks for those travelling through potentially hazardous environments. 

According to research published by the UK Government, a 24-hour outage of the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) could result in a £1.4 billion loss to the UK economy, severely impacting the emergency services, road networks, and maritime transport.
Szutor says his company plans to support the delivery of a self-contained system. This uses quantum interactions with particles to determine precise locations without the need for satellite signals. These devices could be used by ships or aircraft, as well as by machines operating underground or underwater.  

“The main benefit is it doesn’t rely on any kind of external communication. It tells you where you are and where you are heading, supported by a series of high-fidelity lasers,” says Szutor. 

“There is a market available with clear benefits of using these new technologies to increase the efficiency and resilience of our infrastructure.” 

Support for quantum development

Securing funding for quantum technology projects that may not be immediately profitable is a huge hurdle. However, there are various avenues in the UK to promote development and support ventures scaling up for commercialisation. 

Innovate UK, a UK Government agency, has assisted 15 Scottish companies involved with quantum technologies. Earlier this year, the agency awarded £2.34 million to Skylark Lasers to develop critical equipment for quantum-powered navigation systems. The company has also received investment from Scottish Enterprise. 

Funding has enabled Skylark Lasers to develop its portfolio of lasers, as well as increase the commercial feasibility of its quantum-enabling lasers.

Scottish Enterprise, Technology Scotland, Innovate UK, and Fraunhofer UK are actively involved in facilitating links between different businesses and world-renowned professionals. Technology Scotland also runs a Quantum Technology Special Interest Group and has published a Vision Paper for the future of quantum in Scotland.

Moreover, Scotland's fintech and space clusters provide opportunities to exchange contacts and ideas and for talent to move between sectors and apply their transferable skills.

“Electronics engineers from the space industry are usually highly skilled in photonics and lasers,” adds Szutor. “For people with talent and experience, it is good for their careers as well. If you focus on lasers, you are not locked to a laser company. You can also go into the space sector or other exciting and emerging industries.” 

Scottish universities: Key enablers in advanced tech

Alongside government agencies and investors, Scottish universities are at the forefront of developing technology in photonics, lasers, and quantum research. Notably, Scottish universities working within these fields are focused on different specialist areas. 

Szutor says he has been working with Glasgow University, Heriot-Watt University and the University of St Andrews on various projects, from small-scale start-ups to multi-million-pound projects.  

“Universities have provided us with a lot of talent and engineers,” he notes. “I am an advocate of giving people the space to grow. As the company grows, we want our team to grow with us. It is always really nice to have these talented and enthusiastic people coming out of universities.”

He adds that another advantage of being based in Scotland is access to university facilities that contain tools or equipment small companies otherwise wouldn’t be able to use.

Scottish universities are also prolific in producing spin-out companies from academic and industrial research projects. PowerPhotonic, a Herriot-Watt University spin-out, is an example of how the tech ecosystem working with academia, business, and government can accelerate technological advances in Scotland. The company has scaled up to commercialisation and is expanding in the US.

Meanwhile, Vector Photonics is manufacturing semiconductor lasers on a commercial scale, having started at the University of Glasgow. A decades-long tradition in electronics and semiconductor production also aids the development of Scotland's sophisticated technology supply chain.

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