What if there was a piece of technology that could predict how far a forest fire could burn? What if it could chart the farthest Arctic territory, or finally find and help dismantle the millions of unidentified landmines in dozens of nations around the globe? Nations would vie to acquire such a thing. In fact, they already are.

Quantum technology takes advantage of the turbulent nature of atoms in their non-observed state. This allows atoms to hold multiple states at once and causes an increase in efficiency and accuracy of measurements and problem-solving. The buzz around quantum technology has been centred on the mission to create the perplexing quantum computer, which has evaded invention. Such a computer would hasten the ability to solve problems previously unsolvable by the classic computer. Corporations have capitalized on showing off the aspects of quantum development to garner support for the development of a quantum computer, with companies like OMERS, Xanadu, and D-Wave all receiving support from the Canadian government. Canadian allies like the United Kingdom and the United States have invested millions into developing the high-speed computer. Yet, Canada has chosen to focus elsewhere, on the most mature of quantum technologies: quantum sensing. With quantum computing in the spotlight, it might seem like quantum sensing is less important. Although not as flashy as other quantum developments, quantum sensing is poised to revolutionize military and surveillance technologies.

Quantum sensing is an umbrella term that refers to technologies perceived more as innovation rather than an invention, as Canada’s interest in quantum sensing has directly related to building upon already understood classical sensing systems. Hence, it is implied that quantum sensing is less revolutionary than its quantum siblings: the computing and communication domains. In recent years, the quantum computing and communications domains have been amplified as new creations with stark consequences and significant impacts on the technological landscape. However, the lack of recognition of the impact that quantum sensing will have on both the defence and commercial industries is misguided. The technology that falls under the scope of quantum sensing extends to everything from metrology to gravimeters and photonics, which are all able to give precise analyses of the natural environment. The variety of uses that are provided by quantum sensing is part of the reason for the lack of coverage on the technology, as there is so much to cover. The lack of flashy and identifiable singular changes may not entice the layman, but for those who know what to look for, quantum sensing’s appeal is found in the details. For instance, quantum sensors are easily disturbed, making them incredibly sensitive and able to pick up on a variety of environmental changes that a classical sensor would miss. These sensors have been deemed “dual-use” for their versatility and have been projected to be enormously effective in both business and on the battlefield; as such, industry and government have jumped to develop quantum sensing.

Canada’s investment in quantum sensing started before the publication of its National Quantum Strategy in the Quantum Science and Technology Strategy in 2020, where quantum sensing was first identified as a solution to the issues of charting the Arctic. Other usages identified included stealth resistance, chemical detection, increased navigation in GPS-denied areas, and specific meteorological analysis. Quantum sensing developments have also been appointed as the top two missions of the Department of National Defence/Canadian Armed Forces’ most recent quantum strategy, Quantum 2030. For example, enhanced radar and Light Detection and Ranging technology (a form of laser-based radar) have been prioritized to keep up with potential threats entering Canadian airspace and advancing stealth technologies. Canada has held several grant competitions with allies such as the U.K. as well as innovation programs like “Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security” to stimulate quantum sensing innovations. The Department of National Defence has offered grants of up to $3 million for those able to contribute to the innovation effort.

Despite global attention to quantum computing, we can understand Canada’s multifaceted investment into quantum sensing because of the many benefits that these technologies bring specifically to the roles that Canada plays in the world. If Canada were to become the forerunner of quantum sensing, Canada would be indispensable as an intelligence ally and be able to contribute extensively to North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) goals. In light of growing pressure from American and European politicians for Canada to carry its fair share for NORAD and NATO, targeted investments into quantum sensing may help Canada contribute world-leading technology to these alliances. There is also the potential for Canada to spearhead adversarial actions, detecting violations of Canadian airspace or pinpointing the positioning of nuclear submarines, especially in the Arctic where remote surveillance has always been a challenge. In light of rapidly developing drone technology and clearer pathways for submarine activity, the promise of ultra-sensitive sensors could not come a moment too soon. The climate benefits are also nothing to ignore: the high sensitivity of a quantum sensor could detect natural disasters faster, allowing warnings to go out earlier and saving lives. Increased functionality in GPS-denied areas and conditions which are environmentally difficult to monitor would also significantly strengthen search and rescue efforts. Such a strategy has already been implemented in the United Kingdom, where quantum technology is attached to navy ships to aid in the monitoring of oil pollution and more precise time measurements for day-to-day operations. As Canadian search and rescue resources are stretched thin, technological advancements in the most extreme conditions will have an immediate domestic benefit.

Contrarily, there are significant dangers with quantum sensors that Canada must consider in their development. The issue of privacy is a significant human rights question and prompts continual concerns about a society in which anonymity could slip into the realm of privilege rather than right. As a rapidly developing area, there are urgent questions as to how quantum technology will be regulated and which industries will get access to these hyper-sensitive sensors. Defence issues include the abuse of quantum sensing radar technology (as many sensors are tied to satellites), which could open the door for states to engage in space-based warfare. The risk of political adversaries, most notably the People’s Republic of China, utilizing their own quantum advancements to damage Canadian progress is cautioned throughout Canada’s current literature. In order to properly implement quantum sensing in Canada to maximum benefit, understanding the risks is also essential.

Quantum sensing is a delicate matter. While it has the potential to skyrocket Canada to scientific leadership amongst its allies, it could also make Canada a high-priority target for its adversaries. It is clear that Canada will be heavily investing in quantum sensing in the decades to come, but ensuring that the benefits reaped are balanced with the avoidance of potential consequences requires further research and attention. Under no circumstances should one of the most revolutionary defence innovations in our lifetime remain under our radar.

Funding Disclosure

The research was funded through the Mobilizing Insights in Defence and Security Targeted Engagement Grant “QFVEY: Quantum Security, Strategy, and Technology in Five Eyes Nations.” The PI of the project is Dr. Michael Murphy. The opinions expressed in this note do not necessarily reflect an official position of the Department of National Defence, the Canadian Armed Forces, or Queen’s University. 

About the Author

Claire Parsons is a researcher with the Centre for International and Defence Policy. Her research interests pertain to military affairs and international relations. During her Master’s in Political Studies at Queen’s University, her Major Research Project focused on reducing the recruitment and retention of far-right radicals, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis into the Canadian Armed Forces. Claire holds a specialization in Nationalism, Ethnicity, Peace, and Conflict.

Editor’s Note: The article was originally written as “Quantum Sensing and Technology Strategy” and was corrected on April 22, 2024 to read “Quantum Science and Technology Strategy.”

Photo via Fractal Hassan

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