TAMPA, Fla. — Europe has tasked an Airbus-led group to devise its own quantum communications network as startup Arqit raises $400 million for a space-based system.

Airbus said May 31 the European Commission awarded the group a contract to study a quantum technology-powered network, called EuroQCI, to secure critical infrastructure across Europe.

The 15-month agreement is worth several millions of euros, Airbus Defence and Space spokesperson Bruno Daffix told SpaceNews.

Joining the consortium are Italian aerospace and defense company Leonardo, accountancy firm PwC France and Maghreb, French telecoms giant Orange and Italy’s CNR research council and NRiM meteorological institute. Telespazio, a joint venture between Leonardo and French aerospace group Thales, is also part of the group. 

“The key element is the possibility of using quantum technologies to exchange encryption keys, guaranteeing complete communication security in management of vast quantities of data,” Leonardo general manager Lucio Valerio Cioffi said in a statement.

“An unrivalled technology that represents the future, not only in the field of telecommunications but in numerous other applications. The possibility of creating a European “Quantum Internet” in the future, permitting communication between quantum computers – which have greater calculation power and speed and extraordinarily accurate quantum sensors – will permit unprecedented analysis and forecasting on a global scale with total security.”

Security experts see quantum computing as a critical technology for combating cyberattacks that are a growing threat as more devices, and operations, are connected to communications networks worldwide.

EuroQCI aims to use quantum photon states to distribute encryption keys — more securely than traditional methods — through terrestrial fiber optic cables that link with satellites to cover European Union members and outlying territories.

The network aims to fortify communications surrounding government institutions, air traffic control, health care facilities, banks and power grids.

Work on a quantum communications system started June 2019, when seven of the EU’s 27 member states agreed to work together on the initiative. All but one EU member has joined the initiative over the last two years. 

The European Space Agency (ESA) is also supporting the EuroQCI project.

Alongside this initiative, a separate European group — which also includes Airbus, Orange, Telespazio and Thales Alenia Space — is studying the feasibility of a low Earth Orbit (LEO) communications network to connect EU citizens, commercial enterprises and public institutions.

Like EuroQCI, this space-based connectivity network is in the early stages. It is due to come online long after broadband megaconstellations including U.S.-based Starlink and U.K.-headquartered OneWeb.

Racing with startups

The EuroQCI consortium hopes to run a demonstrator mission by 2024 and begin initial operations by 2027.

Daffix said the EuroQCI consortium will work with subcontractors, but it has yet to decide on them.

Meanwhile, British quantum technology encryption startup Arqit is raising $400 million, by merging with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), to launch two satellites in 2023.

The venture has been signing up commercial and government partners for a network that also uses quantum technology to distribute encryption keys.

Partners include British telecoms operator BT and Japanese investment company Sumitomo, which will distribute encryption software Arqit plans to launch this summer.

On June 1, Arqit announced it is collaborating with Northrop Grumman in the U.K. to assess its capabilities in defense and national security settings. 

ESA awarded Arqit a contract in 2019 to co-fund the development of its first QKDSat.

This article was updated June 2 with more details about Arqit’s partners

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...