By Rosemary Gallagher

A FORMER World War II Royal Air Force (RAF) airfield between Dundee and Perth is to house a new optical ground station to test and demonstrate satellite quantum secure communications to fight the threat of cyberattacks.

This optical ground station project represents a total investment of around £1.1 million from the Quantum Communications Hub, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Heriot-Watt University and Dundee Satellite Station (DSS).

The satellite ground station facility at Errol Aerodrome in Perth & Kinross is being developed in a joint venture between Hub researchers at Heriot-Watt University and DSS, a commercial station offering a range of services to the UK and international space sector.

Quantum secure communications are designed to overcome the threat of cyberattacks by allowing the secure transmission of information. However, experts say current methods using terrestrial fibre links are limited by the distance each quantum signal can travel. The Errol optical ground station will use satellites in space that allow quantum communications to be sent securely around the world. It is also intended to support future research and development projects in collaboration with international partners.

The Errol site, which is located on the bank of the River Tay, was selected by the research team following an internal competitive process. This process modelled key variables, such as light pollution, cloud cover and sight lines, to identify the best location.

Dr Ross Donaldson from Heriot-Watt University, who led the site proposal, said Errol will represent the largest investment in quantum ground station infrastructure in the UK. Other smaller investments have been made with teams at Chilbolton Observatory, the University of York and the University of Bristol. He added that globally there are similar facilities in existence or under construction in the USA, Japan, China, Australia and New Zealand.

The next steps for the Errol project will be the start of civil engineering, with the aim of having the telescope and dome installed by the end of 2022. Dr Donaldson said a year will then be spent calibrating and testing in preparation for the quantum capable satellite being launched in 2023/24. A bespoke quantum optical receiver is being designed in the laboratory, which he said will be mounted on the telescope next year.

When not in operation, Errol optical ground station will be protected from the elements by a robotic dome cover, which will also allow the team to roadmap remote activity.

Once operational, the station will be used by researchers directly involved in the Quantum Communication Hub’s satellite R&D programme of work involving a number of partner institutions. These include the University of Bristol, Heriot-Watt University, the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the University of Strathclyde and the University of York. Other UK researchers with relevant interests in experimental satellite quantum communications will be invited to work on-site.

Dr Donaldson said that as the use of the facility grows, so too will the need for skilled workers in the region around Errol.

He described Heriot-Watt University as having “world leading expertise in quantum communications and the enabling technologies behind it” and said this project will place it “at the forefront of satellite quantum communications research, enabling engagement with future missions from national and international teams”.

Professor Tim Spiller at the University of York said: “Satellites will form an essential part of future worldwide quantum communications, and our Hub in-orbit demonstrator mission is one of numerous R&D projects being undertaken to progress towards this goal. The ground-based receiver is clearly a key element of any mission, and we look forward to the Hub Optical Ground Station becoming operational at Errol.”