AFRL demonstrates world’s first daytime free-space quantum communication enabled by adaptive optics

Starfire Optical Range, N.M. – The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Starfire Optical Range (SOR) recently demonstrated quantum communication in daylight under conditions representative of space-to-Earth satellite links.

“This is the world’s first such demonstration, integrating quantum communication with a novel filtering technique enabled by adaptive optics (AO), a technology pioneered at the SOR,” said Dr. Kelly Hammett, director of the AFRL Directed Energy Directorate. A compact AO system was developed for this demonstration to allow quantum communication through-the-air in daylight. Free-space quantum communication in the daytime has been a challenge for the scientific community as it is often negatively impacted by background light.

In contrast to digital information which can be transmitted by radio waves, quantum information is carried by photons, individual particles of light. Transmitting individual photons over long distances and detecting them against background light is essential to exploit the full potential of quantum technologies. Quantum communication will allow the networking of quantum computers for increased computing power with unprecedented security.

“The SOR field experiment is the first in a series designed to demonstrate various quantum communication protocols,” said Dr. Mark Gruneisen, principal investigator for quantum communication research at the SOR. Follow-on demonstrations will advance other quantum communication techniques, which will be equally enabled from AO technologies.

“The demonstration is an important advancement toward a future global-scale ‘quantum internet,” said Gruneisen. “Continued research and development by AFRL and others will bring new capabilities to the warfighter and mankind.”

Air Force Research Laboratory researchers Dr. Mark Gruneisen and 2nd Lt. Eddie Hilburn make adjustments to the quantum key distribution testbed at the Starfire Optical range propagation site. (U.S. Air Force photo/Todd Berenger)