Airbus CTO Sees Quantum Computing Taking Off in Aerospace Industry

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Airbus CTO Sees Quantum Computing Taking Off in Aerospace Industry

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Aerospace giant inviting experts to investigate the technology’s potential to speed up aircraft component design, save fuel.

Airbus chief technology officer Grazia Vittadini. She predicted a “quantum era” in aerospace.

Airbus chief technology officer Grazia Vittadini. She predicted a “quantum era” in aerospace.

Airbus SE is expanding its yearlong quantum computing research effort by seeking help from outside experts on tough flight physics problems, said Grazia Vittadini, the company’s chief technology officer. The European aerospace giant joins several other firms in finance, biotech and the automotive sector that are experimenting with how quantum computers could take on complex calculations that are far too time-consuming for classical computers.

“We are convinced that quantum technologies and specifically quantum computing do represent a breakthrough for different industries, including our own,” Ms. Vittadini said in an interview, adding that it could take about 10 years to bring quantum computing to everyday applications. Nobody has yet built a quantum computer that can be used for large-scale applications, but companies and governments around the world are investing heavily in developing the technology.

Experts estimate quantum computers are still about five to 10 years away from achieving their full potential, and different approaches are being tested. While traditional computers store information as either 0s and 1s, quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which represent and store information as both 0s and 1s simultaneously. That means quantum computers have the potential to sort through a vast number of possible solutions in a fraction of a second.

Ms. Vittadini will oversee a quantum computing challenge in which academics, startups, and other quantum science experts can submit proposals for solving five complex flight-physics problems. One of the challenges involves finding ways to save fuel by optimizing planes’ climb and descent routes. A quantum computer could consider parameters such as weather and tailwind at every point during a flight to suggest the best course, Ms. Vittadini said.

Another challenge is to speed up the time it takes to design an aircraft component called the wing box, which is situated between an aircraft’s fuselage and its wing. Airbus also is asking for proposals to accelerate computational fluid-dynamics simulations, which model how air flows around a plane. “We’d like this to be the first step for us to engage with experts and enthusiasts in the field…in what we believe will be a quantum era in aerospace,” Ms. Vittadini said.

Ms. Vittadini announced the competition at the Digital, Life, Design Conference in Munich on Jan. 20. The winner of the challenge is expected to be announced during the first quarter of 2020. The initiative builds on about two years of research into applying quantum computing to complex tasks by Airbus’s in-house staff and external vendors, Ms. Vittadini said.

In 2016, the company invested an undisclosed amount in the seed-funding round of QC Ware Corp., which connects enterprises via the cloud with quantum computing hardware providers including D-Wave Systems Inc. and International Business Machines Corp.

Airbus sought QC Ware’s help in understanding how quantum computing could be applied to mathematical calculations in the design phase of aircraft systems and parts, Ms. Vittadini said. Redesigning parts can be a time-consuming process with classical computers, which can take days to perform calculations. The companies found that the time it takes to calculate the result was four times faster with a quantum computer, Ms. Vittadini said.

The company also has formed partnerships with research institutions to use quantum mechanics to encrypt sensitive data being sent to and from drones. “This technology will become an essential building block for secure communication for an unmanned vehicle, including unmanned flying taxis,” Ms. Vittadini said.

Some of the problems Airbus wants to tackle include tasks that can be solved in minutes with a quantum computer, versus hours with a classical computer, said Matt Johnson, founder, and CEO of QC Ware, which has raised about $8 million in venture funding to date. Enterprises across industries now realize that quantum computing isn’t just “vaporware”—an idea without a product to test, he said. “Just about every company that has a long product life-cycle and some research and development component have this on their radar,” Mr. Johnson said.

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