The race to deliver cellular calls from space passes two milestones this month and saw one major announcement last month. First, Apple will offer emergency satellite messaging on two of its latest iPhone models, the company announced on Wednesday. Second, AST SpaceMobile plans a launch on Saturday, 10 September, of an experimental satellite to test full-fledged satellite 5G service. In addition, T-Mobile USA and SpaceX intend to offer their own messaging and limited data service via the second generation of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation, as the two companies announced on 25 August.Continue reading Apple Kicks Off the Cell-Calls-From-Space Race
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As China’s Quantum-Encrypting Satellites Shrink, Their Networking Abilities Grow
The orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab has transmitted quantum-encryption keys to four ground stations, researchers reported on 18 August. The same network of ground stations is also able to receive quantum keys from the orbiting Micius satellite, which is in a much higher orbit, using the space station as a repeater. It comes just after the late July launch of Jinan 1, China’s second quantum-encrypting satellite, by the University of Science and Technology of China. USTC told the Xinhua News Agency that the new satellite is one-sixth the mass of its 2016 predecessor.
“The launch is significant,” says physicist Paul Kwiat of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, because it means the team are starting to build, not just plan, a quantum network. USTC researchers did not reply to IEEE Spectrum’s request for comments.
In quantum-key distribution (QKD), the quantum states of a single photon, such as polarization, encode and distribute random information that can be used to encrypt a classical message. Because it is impossible to copy the quantum state without changing it, senders and recipients can verify that their transmission got through without tampering or reading by third parties. In some scenarios it involves sending just one well-described photon at a time, but single photons are difficult to produce, and in this case, researchers used an attenuated laser to send small pulses that might also come out a couple of photons at a time, or not at all.
The USTC research team, led by Jian-Wei Pan, had already established quantum-key distribution from Micius to a single ground station in 2017, not long after the 2016 launch of the satellite. The work that Pan and colleagues reported this month, but which took place in 2018 and 2019, is a necessary step for building a constellation of quantum-encryption-compatible satellites across a range of orbits, to ensure more secure long-distance communications.
Several other research groups have transmitted quantum keys, and others are now building microsatellites for the same purpose. However, the U.S. National Security Agency’s site about QKD lists several technical limitations, such as requiring an initial verification of the counterparty’s identity, the need for special equipment, the cost, and the risk of hardware-based security vulnerabilities. In the absence of fixes, the NSA does not anticipate approving QKD for national security communications.
However, attenuated laser pulses are just one way of implementing QKD. Another is to use quantum entanglement, by which a pair of photons will behave the same way, even at a distance, when someone measures one of their quantum properties. In earlier experiments, Pan and colleagues also reported using quantum entanglement for QKD and mixing satellite and fiber-optic links to establish a mixed-modality QKD network spanning almost 5,000 kilometers.
“A quantum network with entangled nodes is the thing that would be really interesting, enabling distributed quantum computing and sensing, but that’s a hard thing to make. Being able to do QKD is a necessary but not sufficient first step,” Kwiat says. The USTC experiments are a chance to establish many technical abilities, such as the precise control of the pulse duration and direction of the lasers involved, or the ability to accurately transfer and measure the quantum signals to the standard necessary for a more complex quantum network.
That is a step ahead of the many other QKD efforts made so far on laboratory benchtops, over ground-to-ground cables, or aboard balloons or aircraft. “You have to do things very differently if you’re not allowed to fiddle with something once it’s launched into space,” Kwiat says.
The U.S. CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, signed on 9 August, allocated more than US $153 million a year for quantum computing and networks. While that’s unlikely to drive more American work toward an end goal of QKD, Kwiat says, “maybe we do it on the way to these more interesting applications.”
Space 5G Is On the Launchpad
The next generation of cellphone networks won’t just be 5G or 6G—they will be zero g. In April, Lynk Global launched the first direct-to-mobile commercial satellite, and on 15 August a competitor, AST SpaceMobile, confirmed plans to launch an experimental direct-to-mobile satellite of its own in mid-September. Inmarsat and other companies are working on their own low Earth orbit (LEO) cellular solutions as launch prices drop, satellite fabrication methods improve, and telecoms engineers push new network capabilities.Continue reading Space 5G Is On the Launchpad
RISC-V Guns for Raspberry Pi, Legacy Chips
Two hardware makers are planning to offer chips later this year featuring the RISC-V free and open architecture standard, joining the $180 Linux-capable StarFive VisionFive RISC-V board that went on sale in January. In late June, Pine64 said it was designing a single-board computer for the market now dominated by Raspberry Pi, and Xcalibyte and DeepComputing said they would begin shipping RISC-V-based laptops at the end of the summer.
The twelve-year-old RISC-V computer instruction set architecture standard belongs to no one and everyone, giving it unique appeal compared to Intel and ARM chips, which require licensing fees. At the same time, RISC-V’s relative novelty and reduced feature set and support are barriers to more widespread adoption. An open source development effort last year to produce a Linux-capable mini-PC with RISC-V ended in failure. VisionFive was involved in that project, too. Like any new tech ecosystem, software support for RISC-V is more limited than in Raspberry Pi’s robust development community, says independent software engineer Leon Anavi in a review of the VisionFive. That said, he encouraged viewers to join in and contribute to the growing RISC-V community.
“Consumer laptops are not the target of the RISC-V ecosystem. RISC-V is optimized for power consumption.”
—William Li, Counterpoint Research
RISC-V is the fifth generation of so-called “reduced instruction set computers”—hence the acronym—and it is focused on simplicity and power efficiency. When the Internet of Things started to take off, RISC-V’s moment seemed to have come; Huawei has used the standard in wearables since 2018. RISC-V could achieve a 25% market share in the IoT by 2025, Counterpoint Research estimated in late 2021. “Consumer laptops are not the target of the RISC-V ecosystem,” says analyst William Li, the author of of Counterpoint report. “RISC-V is optimized for power consumption.”
That has attracted AI-specific applications and cloud infrastructure ( “RISC-V Dives Into AI”, IEEE Spectrum, April 2022).
The openness of the standard has also attracted markets facing limits to their use of Intel and ARM intellectual property: no government can place sanctions on open chip designs. That has been a concern for Chinese hardware makers since the trade warinitiated by former U.S. President Donald Trump, and may help promote RISC-V sales in the event of restrictions on sales of Intel or ARM tech, wrote Deloitte analysts late last year. Alibaba has already taken some experimental steps in the direction of RISC-V, IEEE Spectrum wrote last year.
Russian hardware makers also began exploring RISC-V, even before the severe round of sanctions other countries placed on it after its 2022 escalation of its war with Ukraine. “In the second half of this year, we will keep track of Chinese and Russian companies to see if they invest in RISC-V and creating their own IP,” says Li.
One Chinese research institute, the Institute of Software at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (ISCAS), set out to build 2,000 RISC-powered laptops for development purposes, according to a July 2021 post by PLCT Lab director Wei Wu. In the PLCT Lab’s roadmap for 2022, Wu writes that the group will focus on enabling Linux and the most commonly used open software, including LibreOffice, for RISC-V laptops.
That is one of the ironies of RISC-V being an open standard: it may gain adoption as trade barriers fragment the global market for chips.
For now, however, the biggest market for RISC-V chips is in the global automotive industry, market research group Semico reported last year on behalf of the RISC-V Internationalindustry group. Semico predicted that RISC-V will continue to gain shares of the automotive market.
The future for chips may in fact be mixed, in a good way: hardware makers can mix RISC-V, ARM, and Intel components in processor packages of their own making. Intel, for one, encourages that on the grounds that customers might end up paying them to build such chips.
And neither legacy chip designer is standing still. Perhaps in response to RISC-V’s customizability, ARM, which while open charges a license fee, has been offering IoT customers more customizable options. “They’re going to try to defend their market share,” Li predicts.
First published by IEEE Spectrum: [html] [pdf].