Hear all about new satellites that will provide the backbone for quantum clock synchronization – and more! Xairos founder David Mitlyng shares some history, other applications, and why microseconds matter for timing! Listen in or read below to find out what this means, how it works, and why it’s important. (Hint: Think GPS.)
Enjoy the podcast above, or read the transcript below.
MYRNA JAMES: I’m happy to be speaking with David Mitlyng about the exciting topic of quantum technologies and how quantum technologies are applied in space. David, thank you for joining me.
DAVID MITLYNG: Oh, thank you, Myrna. It’s my pleasure to be here.
MYRNA JAMES: Great. I am really just fascinated with this field. Share with us a bit about Xairos, your new company. How did this come about?
DAVID MITLYNG: Well, again, appreciate the opportunity to tell the world about the fascinating world of quantum technologies. Our company was formed around quantum communication systems. These quantum communication systems have been around for decades, but my co-founder invented a fairly novel application where you’re using the quantum properties of photons, which are particles of light, to very securely and very accurately synchronize clocks over very long distances. This was technology that my co-founders invented in 2018, they demonstrated it, they patented it, and we formed the company around this in 2019. It’s been a great ride for us, very interesting, because what we’ll provide is a very valuable service for time transferring clock synchronization.
MYRNA JAMES: What is some of the background around why timing is so important? I think in general, people might just go to, “Okay, all the clocks need to synchronize, that’s nice,” but there’s much, much more to it, right?
The Old Days of Analog Communications
DAVID MITLYNG (02:15): Yeah, absolutely. When you think of clocks being synchronized you think of the clock you have on your computer and the clock you have on your cell phone, and we live in a world where they are pretty much automatically synchronized. We don’t really think about how it happens or the clock that your electronics are synchronized to – it just happens automatically. But if you recall back into the olden days, the pre-digital era as it were, we all had clocks in our house that had to be manually synchronized. Over time the clock on your wall, the electronic clocks, would get out of sync with the normal reference, and maybe you would drive by the bank and it would have the time on the sign outside the bank and you would synchronize it there, or you’d listen to the radio and the DJ would announce the time, or if you really wanted to be thorough there was a hotline you could call with your landline phone and get the local time.
MYRNA JAMES: I do remember those days!
DAVID MITLYNG: Yeah. It’s interesting. But in those days, that was fine. That was good enough, because we watched television that was broadcast from a radio tower somewhere, or listened to radio that was broadcast over the thing. We didn’t have digital communications and we didn’t have two-way communications. So we moved into that world, and now synchronization becomes very important, because in the digital world, bits are being routed around in increasingly complex networks and the routing elements within those networks need to be very accurately synchronized. Otherwise the data for all intent purposes gets gummed up in the system.
One of the things I want to highlight to you is how the synchronization is done today within all these networks. Once the networks went to digital, they came up with new data routing protocols. It used to be time division multiplex, then it was time division duplex… there are other kind of things like that. LTE and 5G networks now require very accurate synchronization with cell towers, small cells, back home networks, as well as the data networks that are moving data around, and all of those networks and elements get their time synchronization from one core place: GPS satellites.
MYRNA JAMES: You mentioned that TV and radio in the old days was over RF signals, through radio frequency signals Is it true, that’s how the GPS satellites still work today?
DAVID MITLYNG: Yes, that’s still how it works today. When people think of GPS, they think of maps, they think of the location app on their phone, they think of using it to drive down the street to tell you where you are and how to get to the location you’re trying to get to. But in reality the majority of the economic benefit provided by the GPS satellites has been as a timekeeper for the world, and that timing signal comes across the RF signals that are generated by the GPS satellites, so the same signal that you use to know your location is also providing the time reference for all these networks.
MYRNA JAMES: How many years ago were those satellites put up and put into use?
DAVID MITLYNG: They were originally envisioned by the military back in the 1970s. After the Vietnam war they realized that they they wanted something that provides a bit more accurate information on locations. I think it started with the Navy in particular with the ships on the wide open ocean, getting to know their location, so that was the original genesis for the original GPS satellites.
Over time, it was actually a bit more successful, I think, than even the original architects expected, but it was never used or expected to be used for civilian use until the 80s and 90s. It was just an interesting sequence of events where all of a sudden the satellite constellation that was put up that provides fairly decent timing information came about the time when networks were going from analog to digital and we needed that timing information, so it became the de facto time keeper.
MYRNA JAMES: Interesting, it was a link that was able to connect them. About 12 years ago, I launched a magazine called LB Journal (‘LB’ for location-based information and the ‘x’ representing the algebraic variable for how businesses use location data), and what we reported on was that so many companies were building apps on location at the time – this is back to the maps applications of GPS, on top of the free GPS signal that was coming through RF. That’s one of the things that’s been happening for many, many years now, and as you know, back then location data was separated out, but now it’s embedded in everything we do. So the timing information is similar in that it’s so important and it’s embedded in everything we do, but we don’t even realize it.
DAVID MITLYNG: Yes, it is. That’s the same kind of ecosystem that was generated around the same time. Reports have come out that say that the GPS constellation, which again was never intended for civilian use, has since generated $1.4 trillion in economic benefit, the majority of which is that timing signal.
MYRNA JAMES: Wow, and that’s all based on the current RF system, so now what you’re talking about is a new way to do timing that is more accurate and also more secure via quantum tech, is that right?
Enter Quantum for Timing
DAVID MITLYNG (09:33): That is correct, yes. That’s where quantum comes in. It’s a little convoluted on how the time gets from the GPS satellites down into your network, but it’s essentially transferred with that RF signal. Our major breakthrough as a company, was using some of this off-the-shelf quantum hardware to provide a time distribution system that is about three hours of magnitude more accurate, and much, much more secure. There are fundamental limitations with any RF-based time transfer protocol, not the least of which is that because it is RF, it is trivially easy to jam, and if you’re a bit sophisticated, relatively easy to spoof.
MYRNA JAMES: What do those two things mean?
DAVID MITLYNG: Well, jamming just means I have a RF signal that’s stronger. This has been a big problem. There are many, many reported cases of GPS signals being interfered with, because people can go on eBay right now and buy a GPS jammer. All it is, is a little box that produces an RF signal at the same frequency as the GPS signal, and it overpowers the GPS signal coming from satellites that are 10,000 kilometers away. It’s illegal in the U.S.
Now, who would buy such a thing? Well, it’s been fairly well known that truck drivers were buying them because they didn’t want their employers to know where they’re located. They’d buy these little jammers and that way their GPS receivers would be confused on their location.
Now, spoofing is a bit more sophisticated, but China and Russia have been well documented as having that capability for years. Essentially, they’re going the next level beyond and creating a fake GPS signal so that you think you’re in a different location than you actually are. Russia was well known to have spoofed the GPS signals when they invaded the Ukraine in 2014. The Ukrainian forces originally thought, “Huh, my location app says I’m parked over here, but I think I’m over there,” and that’s the first step toward confusing any adversary forces, making you think you’re a different location than you actually are.
Effects of a 13-Microsecond Error
MYRNA JAMES (12:36): I love the story about what happened in 2016 when a 13-microsecond error on timing for one GPS satellite caused havoc all over the world. Was that the right date?
DAVID MITLYNG: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. That’s a story I like to tell whenever I’m giving a presentation, to open things up. On January 26th, 2016, networks around the world start to fail. Emergency and fire radios in the U.S. and Canada went down first, BBC digital radio went offline, and globally telecommunication data networks started to degrade and fail, and even power grids started to fail. It created some chaos. I mean, network engineers were being woken up in the middle of the night, panic set in, everybody was trying to switch over to figure out what was going on and why the networks were degrading, but the culprit was a 13-microsecond error in a few of the GPS satellites.
It was a satellite operator error! They were decommissioning a few of the GPS satellites, and it created this cascading effect where a small timing error – 13 microseconds is essentially the time it takes for one beat of a hummingbird’s wings – was able to create this issue with networks. The Air Force got it back online, fortunately for all of us, but if this would’ve lasted more than a few hours, this could have caused total communication failure on many parts of the world.
MYRNA JAMES: Wow, and I’m sure one of the scariest things was just not knowing what had happened, trying to diagnose the problem quickly and figure out what had happened so that they could fix it must have been the most…
DAVID MITLYNG: Yes, absolutely, and the other scary part about it too is that this is impacting every network around the world. It just illustrates how reliant we are on that timing signal from GPS and the need for something to augment, to back it up, to replace it.
Introduction to Xairos
MYRNA JAMES (15:00): Right, that is wild. So you guys some customers already, is that right? And then tell me about your business model, how does that work?
DAVID MITLYNG: Yes, so we were formed in 2019, and got some small study phase contracts with the Air Force, NASA, and Navy, that’s been good for us. The NASA and the Air Force and these other government agencies we’re talking to, they’re definitely very interested in this technology. Some groups are interested in the accuracy, others are interested in the security, as you can understand, especially when you hear these stories about RF, which is easer to jam and spoof.
MYRNA JAMES: Yeah – how vulnerable RF is actually…
DAVID MITLYNG: Yes, absolutely. But as a group, we wanted to go after the larger commercial market, which is replacing that timing signal from GPS. To do that we need satellites. We figure we can put this up on a few satellites, a small constellation of satellites, and provide something that is much more accurate and much more robust that provides that stability and extra capability for the networks around the world.
MYRNA JAMES: Great. What about the Space Force, and from an applications standpoint, it affects telecom and financial transactions, smart grids, data fusion?
DAVID MITLYNG: Yes, the Space Force is also a customer for us. All these government agencies, like the Air Force, Space Force, they’re looking at this for very unique applications. Because time synchronization, especially at the accuracy levels that we’re talking about, is orders of magnitude better than what you get from GPS, and provides some very important benefits for data fusion. If you have sensors or radar, or multiple sensors or radar that are looking at data over far flung things, you really need some accurate timing synchronization between those sensors to fuse the data between them.
It’s also useful for applications like location, locating a signal. If you have multiple sensors, they’re all receiving a point signal out in the middle of somewhere and they rely on what they call “time difference of arrival” to locate where that signal’s coming from, and to do that you need those sensors very accurately synchronized. So that’s a big application in the near term for us while we’re developing our system and getting a commercial product available.
NASA and JPL are interested in this because they are looking at or are interested in timing for satellites going to the moon, or for deep space missions. What we’re finding every day is new, interesting applications, because there’s a lot of areas where very accurate or secure time synchronization is critical.
MYRNA JAMES (18:29): How soon do you anticipate launching satellites?
DAVID MITLYNG: Well, I think on the outside it’s 24 months. The hardware that we’re using has been built and demonstrated across fiber and free space links. There are a number of companies that have actually built this and deployed them into fiber networks. There are a few groups that have launched this kind of space-qualified hardware and launched it already, so it’s relatively advanced in that sense of things.
You know, people think of quantum, they think of quantum computing. We are not a quantum computing company. Quantum computers are definitely very advanced and do very interesting things, but it’s a much different design and paradigm, and that hardware has a lot development that’s still in progress, and it’s going to require a lot more development before it does some major practical things. Whereas the hardware we’re using, it’s quantum properties of photons, essentially laser optical equipment, so it’s quite a bit more advanced compared to quantum computing.
The Quantum Aspect
MYRNA JAMES (19:56): You and I had spoken about the quantum key distribution a few years ago, and we did a little deeper dive there. Can you share a bit more now for those who haven’t listened to that, about how that works, about qubits and the entangled photons and that kind of thing?
DAVID MITLYNG: Yeah, happy to, because doing clock synchronization, we leverage the same hardware and same systems that’s used for quantum key distribution. In both cases, you’re starting with a laser. In this case, the laser, you turn the power down so that you’re getting a fairly low power output of photons, particles of light. Then you have the magic hardware in this case, converts those individual photons into pairs of photons that are entangled, and one of those pairs of photons is sent to one detector, we call that Alice, and the other photon is sent to a different detector, we call that Bob, and because those photons are entangled, they share the same information.
So, whatever measurements that Alice makes at her detector will be the same bits that Bob receives at his detector, and that creates that random string of bits that can be used to create an encryption key. Only Alice and Bob will have those encryption keys because if a man in the middle receives that, the entanglement’s broken, and both Alice and Bob will know it and they will know that their keys have been compromised. That’s why that’s called quantum key distribution (QKD).
Quantum key distribution was originally developed in papers going back about 30 years, has been demonstrated in the lab, and that’s where the hardware development has been focused. Our breakthrough is to say, “Hey, I can use those exact same systems and entangled photon designs, but instead of using it to create encryption keys, I’m using it to very accurately measure the clock offset between Alice and Bob,” and that’s the nature of our two-way time transfer using quantum clock synchronization.
MYRNA JAMES: Wow, that’s awesome. Photons are lasers, right? It’s about light.
DAVID MITLYNG: It is about light, yes. This is where I have to give the normal caveat, which is that it is more complicated than that. I will say that, but if I were in an audience with quantum physicists, they would say, “Hey, you’re cutting corners in your description a bit,” but generally that’s fundamentally how it works.
MYRNA JAMES (23:01): Tell me about your co-founder, James Troupe. He’s the one who invented this, is that right?
DAVID MITLYNG: Yeah. He, basically working with other colleagues in 2018, they originally came up with a concept, developed it, and they did what scientists do when they start off. James came out of Office of Naval Research, he was working at the lab there at UT Austin at the time when he originally wrote the papers with some colleagues.
Scientists do what scientists do, they first came up with the ideas, had some papers that they wrote up and got it published, but they decided, “Hey, let’s take it to the next step.” They found a lab that had some hardware in, it was actually a QKD lab and setup, and said, “Well, let’s do some measurements, see if this paper, this theory actually works.” They basically ran the tests in a lab with fairly simple off the shelf quantum optical equipment, were able to achieve roughly 40-50-picosecond accuracy, which is again, pretty much state of the art compared to what else is out there, wrote another paper on it and patented it.
So he’s a brilliant quantum physicist. Definitely I go around and talk about what we do as a company, but all the credit goes to him and his colleagues for coming up with these ideas.
China’s Position on the World Stage
MYRNA JAMES (24:41): Well, that’s great. I’d love to step back for just a minute. I want to ask you a bit about the landscape around the world in this area, because we all know that emerging technologies are extremely important and they’re evolving very, very fast and we’re still on a world stage, where what other countries are doing is important; can you share a bit about what some other countries are doing? I’ve been reading a bit about China, of course, and Japan, and some other countries that are doing some of this, just to give us an idea.
DAVID MITLYNG: I appreciate you bringing that up, I know we’ve had that conversation before. When it comes to quantum technologies, particularly quantum communications, China is the leader without a doubt. There’s a whole backstory there because when you look at the genesis for quantum communications, it originally started with papers that came out of IBM in the 80s, and a lot of the advanced early research was performed in the United States. But for various reasons, like all scientific research, papers get published, word spreads across the globe, the center of gravity for some of that research became Europe and UK, and then it spread to China.
The reason China took the ball and now has the lead with it really is just because the Chinese government is funding it. A couple of decades ago, they recognized that this QKD in particular as a technology was a better way to securely distribute encryption keys that can’t be cracked, and so really put a lot of development and funding into it. There was a lot of surprise in the world when they were the first country to launch a satellite that demonstrated quantum communications in 2017.
That satellite was a Micius satellite that did three groundbreaking experiments, and there are even more papers that are being published all the time coming out of the work and research that was done on those experiments on that satellite. So China’s definitely the leader in this, but there’s also quite a bit of advanced work that’s being done in Europe, UK. There are quantum networks over fiber that are being built around the world in Europe, UK, Japan, Korea… Australia is putting a lot of effort and development into this. It’s advancing quite rapidly and it does seem like that is one area where the United States is a bit behind.
MYRNA JAMES: And when you say they’re testing it, lots of other players are doing it over fiber, that means hardwired, right, literally?
DAVID MITLYNG: Yeah, because it’s an optical system that works in free space, just like a laser, or it works satellite to satellite, satellite to ground, but predominantly the easiest way to transmit information via laser is over fiber. The initial fiber networks have been built. I think it just got published that there was a 46-node fiber quantum network being built in China, and again, multiple networks being built around the world that are leveraging fiber, connecting long-distance cities.
MYRNA JAMES: It’s interesting to think through fiber versus digital – all these satellites that are working right now that are transferring data, whether it’s RF or lasers that they’re using to get data down to the earth or even relayed in space versus fiber.
MYRNA JAMES: Then we get into the idea of asking, “what is time and space?” On your website, you have the vision to own time, right?
DAVID MITLYNG: Yeah.
MYRNA JAMES: To me, that’s sort of a play on words because of course, no one can own time, but I love the idea that this is so important, and we need to think about space and time and how the world works, and it’s really all about frequencies, isn’t it? We’ve been talking about RF frequencies, and it takes the whole conversation to a whole new level to think about those differences.
DAVID MITLYNG: Yeah, I agree. That’s what’s wonderful about the New Space era that we live in; what seemed like science fiction or at least just technology that was stuck in a lab is now being deployed and being built on satellite constellations.
I know when we originally talked about this years ago, we talked about optical communications, laser communications on satellites, and five years ago that was a novelty. Now, every satellite constellation, all of the big players, including Starlink, are all putting optical communications on their satellite constellations. It’s become normalized with the New Space environment we live in.
So you don’t get these technology breakthroughs, you don’t get these advancements when it comes to time distribution, or delivery of encryption keys, or just communications in general, without these breakthroughs in the technology and the development and effort and investment to put this into practical systems.
MYRNA JAMES: Yes, I agree. I appreciate David speaking with you so much and getting an update on what you are doing and this exciting new company. Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
DAVID MITLYNG: Like I said before, it’s always a pleasure. It’s great to catch up with you. You almost get whiplash trying to keep up with the new technologies and the new systems that are being developed and employed out there. Hopefully this was interesting for you and your audience, and I look forward to our next conversation.
MYRNA JAMES: Yeah, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.