Press Release

New generation sensors are needed to prevent technological leaps being grounded before take-off, warn quantum experts

9th October 2020
Press Release

Sensor technology vital for UK critical national infrastructure is becoming outdated, warn experts at the University of Birmingham-led UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing.

The current weakness threatens anticipated advances, many involving quantum technologies, across different sectors – including climate change, defence, transportation, energy supplies and healthcare.

The warning comes following a virtual roundtable event jointly hosted by Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs), the University of Birmingham and BAE Systems – bringing together scientists, engineers and policymakers.  They explored the range of potential impacts of quantum sensing, how best to develop sensors capable of meeting anticipated technological advances, and how to increase awareness and understanding of these new technologies.

Everything from flying taxis, driverless delivery vehicles and improved timing systems, upon which 10 per cent of the UK economy depends, will rely on a new generation of sensors for smooth, safe, and secure operation.

Sensor technology is now central to the UK economy, but risks becoming the weakest link in technological advances if taken for granted, experts have concluded.

The roundtable was the first in a series of events that Chatham House is hosting on the potential impacts that the quantum revolution will have on international security.

Professor Kai Bongs, Director of Innovation at the University of Birmingham’s College of Engineering and Physical Sciences and Principle Investigator of the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing, described sensors as a critical underpinning technology.

“A useful comparison is with the development of materials,” said Professor Bongs. “Many of today’s technologies, such as touchscreens, compact electric motors or fibre communications, would not exist without the development of respective materials, making their ingredients critical for society.”

The last significant advance in sensors was the development, in 1969, of the CCD sensor used in digital imaging.

Professor Bongs adds: “This highlights how an advance in sensor technology enables future innovation because CCD technology is what allows us to take photos with mobile phones, making social media the huge economic and societal force it has become.”

Professor Bongs, who was keynote speaker at the roundtable event, , said policymakers need to address the sensor innovation deficit now if technological advances are not to stall.

He added: “We need to find ways to identify what sensors will be needed to do, and where in our economy, particularly as we enter a quantum era with its promise of huge change. We must encourage the development of new sensors that are up to the challenges of technology where they will be crucial.

“This is partly an issue to do with helping smaller businesses to advance and produce novel sensors before there is an obvious market.”

Prof Bongs said that quantum technologies have huge potential to unearth new and needed information about the world.

Quantum-enabled devices will be transformative in many different areas, including secure communications, autonomous transportation, climate change, navigation, stealth detection and brain imaging.

A new generation of quantum sensors when developed will help:

  • Map accurately buried hazards before rail, road and building projects begin.
  • Make autonomous vehicles safe.
  • Deliver crucial timing signals needed for electronic equipment, ending reliance on vulnerable and variable satellite signals.
  • Set new standards for the operation of trading on financial markets.
  • Reveal the invisible natural world underground and undersea

“I hope that by raising awareness of the need for new sensors now that they will be ready and available for technological advances as required, which in some cases will be within just a few years,” said Professor Bongs.


For media enquiries please contact:
Toby Moore, [email protected], 07976 942209
Beck Lockwood, Press Office, University of Birmingham, tel: +44 (0)781 3343348.

Notes to editor:

About the University of Birmingham

The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.

About BAE Systems

Technology and innovation are central to BAE Systems’ strategy, underpinning the continued development of its products and services. In 2019, we spent £1.5bn on R&D, of which £237m was self-funded.

The University of Birmingham is one of the BAE Systems’ five strategic university partnerships which were first announced in 2017.  With world leading research in quantum sensing, virtual reality and immersive systems technologies, the partnership with Birmingham will help ensure that BAE Systems retains cutting edge capability in these areas.