Quantum Technology & The Military

When you think of military operations, chances are you think of the obvious.  The tanks.  The service members.  The uniform.  The helicopters.  The military brass.  The American flag.  The Pentagon.  All the iconic symbols that the military takes pride in illustrating.  There’s a reason for that, of course.  Those are the brochure-friendly things that stand symbolic of our mighty military force.

However, there’s more to the military that meets the eye.

Quantum technology and the militaryScience and technology play a huge part in our military operations.  Whether that be obvious, like the UAV, or the more discreet, like NRL’s chemical-detecting CT-Analyst. Science and discovery are shaping the future of the force a little bit every day.  Even, believe it or not, on a subatomic level.

I’m talking about quantum technology.  That’s right; we’re using quantum physics.  In the U.S. military.

I’m sure some of you may have some questions, so let’s start with the basics.

Quantum physics (or quantum mechanics) is a type of physics which deals with things on microscopic levels. It focuses on the atomic and subatomic levels, and works with particles and waves, studying the behavior and interactions with energy and matter.  Essentially, scientists who study quantum physics in its many forms are trying to find the limits of energy and matter by attempting to break the rules that we understand about them now.

I guess you could call them the rebels of the science realm.  Or, at least I do.

In any case, the military is trying to find out how to use quantum physics to aid the military and help in military missions.  As you can probably imagine, that is no small task.  Luckily the military has put some of their top scientists on the job.

Like Ron Meyers, for example.

Ronald E. Meyers is a physicist at the Army Research Laboratory in Maryland.  Aside from being an award-winning scientist in his field, Ron is also an inventor.  He was named the Army’s the top innovator from Reuters, with 11 patents under his belt.  Recently I spent some time with Ron and asked him to tell me about his work in quantum physics for the military.

“I went into science because I wanted to know how the world works.  About how I work,” Ron explains.  “I was fascinated by what I observed and what I learned.  I found that I tend to be able to solve the harder problems.”

In his quest to do that, Ron has worked in many departments, from physics and mathematics, to fluid dynamics and quantum physics.  He’s the type of person who likes to work on difficult but important problems.  And it shows.  At Brookhaven National Laboratory, he developed the first comprehensive model of air pollution in the United States for the White House.  That led to the new Clean Air Act, which recognized long range transport of air pollution and its impact on health.

I think it’s safe to say this guy knows how to science.

He then discovered that the military had big applications for solving a lot of problems that don’t just affect the environment, but the warfighter as well.  That’s where quantum physics came into the equation (so to speak).

“My main goal right now is to help the Army develop quantum technology,” Ron explains.  “Quantum technology leverages the physics of quantum particles to overcome the classical limits in technology applications.”

Ah, I see.

Okay no I don’t.  What does that mean?

“We’re talking about developing quantum computing, quantum communications, quantum imaging,” Ron explains.  Quantum particles, for example, are photons and electrons and atoms and ions.  We know that they behave a little differently than how we observe large scale objects.

“The physics is different,” he says.  “It turns out that you can leverage this [these physics] that most people would consider uncommon, and that you can get betting imagining and better computing.  You can do safer communications that are encrypted more efficiently.  You can get the better imaging.”

Much of what Ron does, as a matter of fact, is in quantum imaging.

“I developed the way to use quantum particles and photons to image remote objects.  This is called ghost imaging.”

The name makes sense when you see it like this.  (Courtesy photo by www.af.mil)

Ghost-imaging is a visual image of an object created by means of light that has never interacted with the object. The new technology may eventually result in more versatile use of field sensors, and have space applications. (Image courtesy of the Army Research Laboratory)

It has a strange name, to be sure, but there’s a reason for that.  Ghost imaging is a technique that allows a high resolution camera to produce an image of an object which the camera itself cannot see.

“With ghost imagining you image the source,” he explains.  “So you take pictures of the Sun, for example.  You’d also use a light meter to see how much light is reflected from the target.  When you put those measurements together you actually get an improved image of the target and you’re computing that.  You don’t see image directly.  You compute the image.”

It turns out that this ghost imaging has the ability to see through turbulence, so it won’t blur long distance imaging.  It can also see through a lot of obscurance to get higher resolution than normal.  Essentially, Ron explains, you’re figuring out the paths that the light takes to the target and then back to your sensors.  When you put all of that together you get more resolution.

“I was the first one to image an item remotely using ghost imagining,” Ron says.  Some work had been done earlier.  Ghost imaging with entangled photons appeared earlier as a physics curiosity.  Now it’s a field of quantum physics, he says, and it has a lot of applications.

“We’re working very hard to bring that technology to the Army.”

And use it in the Army we absolutely could.  Think about it.  This could help the military in several ways.  Like seeing through things, for example.  Superman-style.  But Ron says we don’t need to stop there.

“I think the opportunities [for the application of ghost imaging] are fairly unlimited,” Ron says.  “Certainly there are applications on the battlefield to see through obscurance to identify friend vs foe.”

There’s also the opportunity to use ghost imaging to assist in crisis situations, Ron says.  For example, in a fire you could use ghost imaging through the smoke.  This imaging could have an application during any time that there are visual obstacles.

In addition to being able to get clearer, more accurate pictures from father distances, it will also aid in things like medical imaging.  For example, this will improve brain imaging.  That could provide immeasurable assistance to people in the medical field.

So this got me thinking.  How far might we be able to use this technology?  I mean, could you use ghost imaging in space?

As it turns out, yes.  Yes you absolutely can.

“That’s an area that NASA is working on now,” Ron says, much to my delight.  “They’re applying ghost imaging to space imaging.  So this is an exciting area.  They’re looking for exoplanets and they’ve developed some follow-on techniques in this field.”

I knew it!

But it’s more than just the expanse of space and the ability to have Superman vision.  This is something that is the stepping stone for future, more advanced and fantastic engineering and technology.

At least, that’s the plan.

“I think that the work in quantum aspects of ghost imaging will have a long term impact,” Ron says.  “There will be a lot of improvements but I know that it will help the Army and civilization get there a little quicker.”

The types of applications are environmental imaging, medical imaging, space imaging, things that help the military.  But this kind of technology isn’t limited.  Then again, quantum things rarely are.

Quantum technology is transformative technology,” Ron explains.  “Basically, this is how the world works; by the interactions of quantum particles and quantum energy.  So everything in motion and the states of the universe deals with these types of interactions.  Trying to leverage that potential for the Army is a big responsibility and I try to do the best at that, as do my colleagues.”

So I asked Ron what it was that drove him to work on this project.  So what propelled him forward to pursue the fascinating and ever-possible world of quantum technology?

“I like working for the soldiers.  For the warfighters.  They have tremendous courage, they have dedication.  Not only do they sacrifice a lot but also their families sacrifice.  I find that very humbling.”

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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