Inside the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Contemporary Quantum Pursuits

Amin Van/Shutterstock

The early quantum adopter is making strategic moves to develop on-the-rise capabilities—and manage the hype around them.

A growing team of officials within the primary research and development center for the Air Force and Space Force is helping the U.S. strategically inch closer to what could be life-altering science and technological breakthroughs via quantum information science. 

During a recent conversation with Nextgov, Michael Hayduk shed light on unfolding and upcoming moves to push forward new, quantum-centered applications at the Air Force Research Laboratory, where he’s worked for 29 years and now serves as the deputy director of its information directorate.

“Quantum really comes from the very basic building blocks that nature has given us,” he explained. “So when you think about things like electrons, protons, neutrons, ions and photons, when you get to those levels, which form all of nature, they have very different properties to them—much different physical properties than we have—for example, how we're interacting today, or how my coffee mug is sitting on the table and liquid is contained within it.”

Officials are looking to not only harness those quantum mechanical properties, but also leverage them to come up with these new capabilities in areas like timing, sensing, communications, computing, and beyond. The potential is only beginning to come to light—and working to use and control subatomic particles “at very fundamental points of nature” is inexplicably complex. 

“There's so much that needs to be done in quantum to make it a reality—not only basic science but also a lot of the other work in terms of engineering and how you can actually make things feasible,” Hayduk said. “And from the Air Force's perspective, one of the things that we're looking at as well as [the Office of the Defense Secretary], a great partner of ours, is then once you have these properties, how can you make them feasible, practical and really get them out into the field, so they can field them? That's something we're very focused on at AFRL, as well.”

The directorate Hayduk helps lead hones in on a range of information technologies to support needs around command, control, communications, computers, intel, cyber and more. But several years ago, he also assumed additional duties coordinating a quantum-focused research and development program across AFRL. The lab has developed quantum clocks and steered an array of other QIS-focused efforts in areas of quantum communications, networking and more over the last decade. But in 2018, officials opted to further streamline their work, create an AFRL quantum strategy, and fuse it all with a broader whole-of-nation, administration-led endeavor that was beginning to come together. 

The lab refined an overarching approach that was developed around four major technical areas it named at the time: quantum timing, quantum sensing, quantum communications and networking, and quantum computing. Hayduk noted those, and other key areas including workforce development and supply chain development, are at the heart of the lab’s present and future pursuits. 

AFRL’s sharpened focus on internal and external quantum initiatives was happening organically then—and it tied well with the passage of the Quantum Initiative Act in late 2018, which aimed to help coordinate and accelerate federally-backed QIS efforts.

“At that time, we were kind of focused on what we're doing in the Air Force, but that then allowed us to kind of broaden our perspective and really become involved with not only at the OSD level with our service partners in the Army and the Navy, but really going after the larger government approach and working much more closely with other agencies such as [the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation and the Energy and Homeland Security Departments],” Hayduk said. “And all of that has been great.” 

He reflected on some of the lab’s QIS-driving initiatives and investments since. 

Though they aren’t developing quantum computing hardware in-house, lab officials need access to produce and test software and algorithms, and get a firm grasp on the types of problems that could be solvable via quantum computers. AFRL joined IBM’s Q Network, which enables access to IBM’s noisy intermediate-scale computing platforms through the cloud. 

“That's allowed us to really go in with our researchers and our partners and start programming on those machines, and set up a number of projects where we can start really ‘getting our hands dirty’ if you will looking at Air Force applications, as well as DOD applications,” he said. Hayduk added that with “hundreds of millions of dollars being poured in by industry and venture capitalists based on early seed funding from the U.S. government to now make these machines a reality,” having access to IBM’s and others’ not on-site will be “a very big deal for us,” as the capabilities progress.

Even as quantum applications are far from fully realized, fieldability is another area of intense focus for AFRL. RIMPAC, or the military’s Rim of the Pacific, is an extensive naval exercise that occurs every two years. For RIMPAC 2022, the lab has been preparing to link up with the Office of Naval Research to test out QIS technologies with the Five Eye intelligence alliance, or America, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. They’ll combine components like gravitational sensors, radiometers, magnetometers, inertial sensors and electric field sensors with clocks, and also with Hayduk referred to as an open, plug-in-play type architecture—to ultimately push forward advancements in precision, position, navigation and timing. 

“We know it’s going to be a challenge for 2022. These technologies are still being developed in the lab. But by being able to think ahead, figuring out how you can engineer them, organize them, make them fieldable, will give us really good insight at 2022 RIMPAC,” he said. “And then we expect in 2024 to really further refine the technologies and really make steady improvements.”

Down the line, quantum capabilities in that realm could enable GPS in areas where it's presently tough to deploy.

The lab is also making strides to develop a quantum-smart workforce talent pipeline. Right now, there’s what Hayduk called a “robust and growing program” of almost a dozen government personnel working within quantum areas at the New York-based lab, as well as 10 to 15 on-site contractors, postdoctoral fellows, and interns focused on the evolving realms. 

In 2020, AFRL hosted what Hayduk said was a first-of-a-kind event, the Million Dollar International Quantum U Tech Accelerator. Before the three-day virtual gathering came to an end, the lab awarded 17 quantum information science grants to underpin basic research for quantum enabling technologies. During a recent talk he gave at the 2020 Q2B Quantum Computing Conference, Hayduk noted awards were made for innovative lasers, quantum sensors for GPS navigation and more.

The lab also recently dished out 23 Phase II Small-Business Technology Transfer, or STTR awards to 15 small businesses—valued at $35 million in collective funding—for proposed projects that span its four technical priority areas. 

“The best-case scenario is some of those companies that we funded, say, in the quantum sensing area or quantum timing area, we can see the technologies being further developed with this STTR award—and then really going into things like the RIMPAC demonstration, as well,” Hayduk said, noting that the ultimate aim is to make quantum technologies practical in as quickly of a timeframe as possible. 

In 2021, AFRL intends to continue to build out and boost up its quantum-focused ecosystem through new and continued initiatives, partnerships and resources. Forging ahead across all four of its defined technical areas will remain a top priority, as will employee and supply chain developments. 

And while quantum remains in-focus as one of the buzziest technologies of today, Hayduk said it’ll also be important to manage the hype around it. 

“There’s a lot of great work on quantum. It's a very exciting technology being pursued worldwide. But we also have to keep in mind, there's still a lot of science, and a lot of research and development that needs to be done to really make it a reality—and different quantum technologies are going to come to maturity sooner than others,” he said. “We talked about the clocks and sensors coming to maturity sooner, maybe in the 5- to 10 year-range, but computing and communications we see kind of as 10-plus years out, as well. So, we certainly need the long-term investments in the U.S. to continue to make quantum feasible.”