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Kiwi-made 'spy' tech a sign of our quantum future

Kiwi-made 'spy' tech a sign of our quantum future
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Dr Amita Deb in a lab at the Physics Department, University of Otago. Photo / Otago Daily Times

A clever piece of Kiwi-made tech could soon become a handy asset for spy agencies, with the power to bury secret messages where eavesdroppers can’t find them.

Dubbed the “Ry-Fi”, the device is a stellar example of a little-publicised area of science which two just-released reports estimate could soon be worth billions of dollars to New Zealand.

Dr Amita Deb’s tech, about to be issued a US patent, is a world-first optical antenna that can convert data from radio to optical fibre communications – and without the need for any electronic devices.

“We see this being used as a specialised device for specific agencies, perhaps militaries or other departments with a need for secure information sharing,” said Deb, based out of Otago University and the Dodd-Walls Centre.

“It’s able to intercept messages at specific frequencies across a huge range, meaning you have to know what frequency out of billions to be tuning into to access the information.”

“It essentially turns your message into a needle in a haystack for any potential eavesdroppers.”

The tech – which uses fundamental quantum mechanics, and was developed out of Otago University’s ultracold atoms lab – could help prove disruptive to the world of communications.

While electronic devices like our smartphones are heavily relied upon for the majority of modern information sharing, as data sharing improves, so did the need for hardware to be upgraded.

“Electronic devices are only able to intercept information from frequencies to an extent – it’s why your old phone won’t be able to connect to 4G, for example,” he said.

“The hardware is outdated.”

Deb’s team is expected to be granted a US patent in around one month’s time, and Otago University’s intellectual property hub is now in talks with interested parties to commercialise the technology.

“What Dr Deb’s team has achieved here is one of the first of many innovations in the coming second quantum revolution,” Dodds-Wall Centre director and leading Kiwi physicist Professor David Hutchinson said.

One transtasman report released this month found New Zealand’s quantum technology sector could be worth at least $1 billion in coming decades, while creating thousands of jobs.

Dr Amita Deb has built a world-first optical antenna that can convert data from radio to optical fibre communications – and without the need for any electronic devices.

“New Zealand has a long history of excellence in quantum physics, with our scientists and research highly regarded around the world,” Hutchinson said.

“New Zealand has played a leading role in quantum and atomic physics for decades, particularly in the field of quantum optics, where Dan Walls, who the centre was named after, was a leading pioneer.”

“As our quantum research develops, it will be translated into the commercial world through the creation of high value, niche export businesses.”

While quantum computing is still a long way off from becoming mainstream, quantum technology has a broad range of real-world applications today across healthcare, defence, financial services, and privacy.

Quantum sensors can be used to enable early disease detection as well as to discover valuable mineral deposits and for groundwater monitoring.

Quantum computers will also be capable of complex modelling, which can optimise investment portfolios, or boost biotechnology development through quantum chemistry simulation.

A $1b quantum technology industry would be considered well within New Zealand’s top 10 industries, just behind wine but ahead of fish exports.

The report comes alongside another, released today, mapping out the similarly exciting potential of photonics in New Zealand.

Products that rely on photonics – the science of using light for sensing, manufacturing, information transmission and biomedicine – include smartphones, computers, fibre-optic communication systems, laser engraving and cutting machines, drones and medical devices.

According to the report, there were now 121 New Zealand companies involved in the industry, employing more than 2500 people and accounting for about $1.2b of economic activity.

Leading players in the Kiwi industry include Coherent Solutions, an Auckland-based company that makes high-end testing equipment for the optical telecommunications market and now employs 50 people.

“In recent years there has been incredible investment into photonics technologies, which now power high-speed internet to smartphone facial recognition and self-driving vehicles,” said the company’s co-founder and chief executive, Andy Stevens.

“Working at the cutting-edge of technology requires highly trained talent and New Zealand is a great place to attract and train specialised staff and build a sustainable, world-leading photonics company.

“I see a very bright future for the photonics industry in New Zealand.”


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