Shipping Technology

New Quantum System will create “untappable” communications for Port of Rotterdam

In October, the Port of Rotterdam announced that it will be implementing a quantum communications system to provide secure communications for Port customers that cannot be tapped.

The Port’s news release noted that a team of scientists and engineers at QuTech—a collaboration between the Delft University of Technology and TNO—"has demonstrated an alternative, untappable method for sending encrypted information. The technology has such commercial potential that they have decided to spin-off out of QuTech under the name of Q*Bird. “Our technology is based on a special implementation of quantum key distribution (QKD) that uses a central hub to connect users that want to exchange secure communications,” explains Q*Bird's co-founder and director Remon Berrevoets.

The release went on to say that “the central hub of the system will be situated at Port of Rotterdam Authority and will connect users at Portbase, and two or three other maritime logistic companies that are based in the Port of Rotterdam. The multi-user capabilities of the central hub allow for later additions of i.e., barges and pilot organization to the network. In due course, other end-users can be connected to the system too, for example: third party customers, suppliers, and emergency services.”

On its website, Portbase says its mission is to make the logistics chains of the Dutch ports as attractive as possible through a one-stop shop.

In an interview with AJOT, Josh Slater, a quantum engineer who is collaborating with the Port of Rotterdam, explained how the quantum communication system will work:

“So, there were a number of people working inside the quantum Internet division of Qu-Tech who started Q*Bird as a side company to tackle certain projects and problems that are closer to real world commercial and industrial application relevance than what organizations like Qu-Tech would normally go after. So, QuTech has put effort into spinning Q*Bird out of QuTech. Formally, Qu-Tech and Q*Bird are separate entities. The Port of Rotterdam is a starting point for such activities.”

Joshua Slater

Quantum Communications

Slater explained how quantum communications work: “We are using quantum communication, quantum networking, and quantum Internet. People describe it in different terms, but it is working on the communications front. So, there is technology being developed around the world (that) falls into the domain (of) quantum communications or quantum Internet ... My team has hardware systems that create Qubits, and these Qubits are made of single particles of light, single photons. We use these for communications purposes, just like the conventional Internet uses optics, photons, strong laser pulses, to communicate over fiber-optics ... We are using Qubits as the vehicle to transmit our data.”

Slater said: “Normally in quantum computers those Qubits are things like superconductors… held in very large systems at very low temperatures. In our system, we use Qubits as single particles of light, photons, and they are not at low temperatures. We generate them and put them through optical fiber, and they travel around the normal optical fiber network … which is already in the ground all over the place. This is the basis for the communications security.”

The reason the system cannot be broken is that: “If anyone looks at a quantum system, that intrinsically disturbs that quantum system … So, as we are sending Qubits from place to place in the network, if anyone is looking at it, if anyone is tapping that line between the two locations, the sender and receiver, we can detect that… Or, if somebody is looking at it, then we don’t send any sensitive data. We have other techniques and there are also other fancy security techniques on how to deal with someone who is tampering …”

The result Slater says is: “What we are able to say is that this information is getting across the line undisturbed thus no one is looking at it.’”

So, for the Port of Rotterdam, “they have stuff everywhere… the distance spans several cities. They have important information that is flowing all over their locations. Things related to Customs; things related to what’s inside of various people’s shipments. They want to know this information is moving around their very large campus safely and securely.”

Slater admits the quantum system will not defend against all cyber-attacks: “For example, there are spoofing attacks and phishing attacks which quantum is not going to be able to help you with. So, what quantum will help you with is to prevent people tapping into lines directly. In cybersecurity there are tons of attack factors that people can use to try to get into your system and quantum can be there to protect a class of them. So, if someone sent a phishing email to the Port of Los Angeles, and said ‘click on this and enter your password and email,’ the quantum system can’t protect you against that…”

Two Devices

Slater explained that two types of devices go into the network: 1) One of them “we call end nodes, and these end nodes are devices that generate and send Qubits out into the network, and they are the ones that establish the secure communication link between locations.”

2) The second is “what we call center hubs or just hubs which effectively act as network switches that provide quantum network connectivity between the various locations. A company like Cisco would play a role in where the end nodes go and assist in protecting the communications traffic. The center hub in our system cannot get access to any sensitive data.”

The result is that the communication “happens between end node to end node where we put the sensitive communication… even if an attacker were to completely attack the center hub it doesn’t break the security of the network. That’s a really important feature. Eventually we can bring other systems through the center hubs, and thus we can bring other systems into the same quantum networks we are building in various locations.”

The first phase at the Port of Rotterdam includes five locations: “We will be expanding our network at the Port based on our experiences derived from our first five locations. At the Port of Rotterdam Authority, the Department called Innovations is the one that is working on the project with us.”

Slater said consultants have also talked to harbor pilots about including the quantum system: “We’ve had some amazing talks with the pilots, who pilot the ships into the port as an example.”

Schematic image of the quantum key distribution system. A central node (Charlie) connects users Alice (left) and Bob (right). If an eavesdropping hacker tries to steal the secret keys, the laws of quantum mechanics ensure the users are informed if the keys are compromised. Another set of keys will then be created to securely encrypt further messages. Image credit: Simplot for QuTech.

Port of Rotterdam’s Portbase

Slater cited the pivotal role of Portbase: “This organization handles the information communication window from the Internet into the communication network of the Port of Rotterdam. So, if you’re a client of the Port of Rotterdam, your connection into the system goes through Portbase. So, they are significant players in this project because they handle the doorway…”

On its website, Portbase explains that the non-profit organization was founded in 2009 by the Port of Rotterdam and Port of Amsterdam. The mission is to make the logistics chains of the Dutch ports as attractive as possible through a one-stop shop: “Portbase connects all parties in the logistics chains of the Dutch ports to this end. Via the Port Community System, Portbase facilitates data sharing between companies and information exchange with governments in order to work faster, more efficiently and at lower costs. Together with our growing community, Portbase is making data sharing increasingly valuable. With the aim of making the Dutch port community and thus the ports, the smartest in Europe. Portbase is neutral, of and for the port community and has no profit motive.”

Distance Limitations

The system is limited by distance of between 100-200 kilometers: “The distance barrier over which we can maintain communication, so far for us (is) somewhere between 100 to 200 kilometers. No one in the quantum communications field can maintain communications beyond this point. So, while the Port of Rotterdam is very large, it’s not larger than 100 kilometers. So, it’s a good place to build such a network.”

The project is in the testing and installation phase with the system expected to be in full operation some time in 2023: “We are confident that our equipment will work because it is already in the field but at least with the Port of Rotterdam we have to get a lot of organizational ducks in a row and make sure that everyone knows what to do. Everything has to be tested, plugged in, and supplied with electricity… Cisco is involved in the discussion on how we integrate the quantum into the regular communication. By 2023, this will happen. I am happy to promise that.”

Quantum Computers May Expedite Schedule Optimizations At Ports

The deployment of quantum computers, which use Qubits can process some calculations at a far faster rate than conventional digital computers, is still years away Slater says, and he does not expect them to be used for communications: “I would expect quantum computers to be showing up in the not-to-distant future. But I do not see them being used in the same kind of application for secure communications.”

One application Slater does foresee for quantum computers is in schedule optimization that could improve logistics flows at ports: “The quantum computer is good at certain kinds of calculations, not all calculations, but certain kinds. And one of them is scheduling optimizations so that if you are an organization like the Port of Rotterdam with vessels coming and going, and trucks and containers coming and going, and resources going all over the place, you have a lot of scheduling that is using I imagine, supercomputers, trying to figure out how to optimize resources. A quantum computer is very good at calculating how to optimize resources such as scheduling and logistics.”

Stas Margaronis
Stas Margaronis


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