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Encryption for the Quantum Age

In partnership with the Army, associate professor Mark Adams is supporting efforts to establish secure military communications using small satellites.

By Virginia Speirs

As technology continues to evolve, what will it take for the United States military to maintain secure communications?

Low-Earth orbit satellites with quantum key distribution abilities, to start. With a recent grant, Auburn University is helping make sure our soldiers have the best communication possible — the unhackable kind. 

“The Army is interested in secure communications,” said Mark Adams, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and assistant director of the Alabama Micro/Nano Science and Technology Center. “What we’re doing is supporting an effort to establish secure military communications using small satellites the size of a loaf of bread. We are currently working with them to develop the infrastructure necessary to do that.” 

The focus of this project is not simply to make an unhackable connection, but to make it resilient, as well. Small satellites allow a low-cost, rapid access to space which provides the Army with a greater degree of mission flexibility. 

Quantum key distribution is a crucial aspect to this project. In a typical encryption scheme, a mathematical algorithm called a cipher is used to encrypt and decrypt information. Depending on the length of the key, the encryption is more difficult to break. Because of the continued evolution of quantum computing, typical encryption is not as secure as it once was. QKD provides elevated security not only by creating a shared random key that cannot be recovered, it can also alert users when an eavesdropper is present and the key may have been intercepted by a third party, providing an additional level of security. 

Adams and his team are working to develop all components of this project, both hardware and software. The physical satellite design has to be discreet yet have both encryption and tracking capabilities. The software needs to be able to transmit communication in protected, low-observable wave forms that would be nearly impossible to hack and have the ability to send clear messages back and forth from sender to receiver. 

“We have since added some additional elements [to the project] where we’re looking at developing new types of encryption,” Adams said. “We’re working on developing hardware that will allow us to use concepts like quantum key distribution in these small satellites, so we can provide an ultra-secure communication method.”