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  • Weekly Takeaways-October 4, 2021

    We recently got a question: Why pay for timing when the GPS signal is free? The snarky response: Why pay for cable when broadcast TV is free? Why pay for cell service when CB radio is free? But the better response: because timing from GPS is not nearly secure or accurate enough for modern networks, and there is no incentive to improve this for civilian use. Because of this a multi-billion-dollar cottage industry has been created for timing products that provide incremental improvement but still rely on the timing signal from GPS. Telcos and data centers also spend billions to extend holdover when there is a GPS outage - and there are many many outages per year. Xairos' timing service does not need holdover (indeed, GPS timing is the backup), delivers orders of magnitude better accuracy, is resilient to outages, will be continuously improved and supported, and cost the same as existing timing hardware solutions.

  • The Dire Need for GPS Alternatives

    By Dr. Tanya Ramond The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978. The full constellation of satellites was realized by 1993, consisting of 24 satellites plus 7 spares. The GPS system was first conceived as a military device built by the Department of Defense, intended primarily for military use. The basic idea is that each GPS satellite sends out by radio a precise time signal plus metadata about its position and orientation. The receiver receives signal from up to four satellites, and records the time of flight to arrive at the receiver. The time of flight from four different satellites allows calculation of the position of the receiver. So GPS sends a time signal, and the position is calculated on the ground, by the receiver. When you think of GPS, your first thought is probably the map app on your phone that directs your driving from point A to point B. But in reality, GPS timing is an important infrastructure layer to our world. The US Department of Homeland Security has deemed GPS to be part of all 16 infrastructure sectors deemed ‘critical’, including telecommunications, financial industry, electrical grid, commerce, military, transportation and agriculture. And the economic impact of GPS is mind-blowing. In 2019 the National Institute of Standards and Technology published a study that concluded that GPS contributed a whopping $1B USD per day to the economy. Despite the fundamental importance of this utility, GPS is actually a highly vulnerable target. We know that the Russians are working on kamikaze satellites that could take out a GPS satellite, and the Chinese are developing kidnapper satellites that can extend an arm to harm another satellite. That plus the fact that over 10,000 GPS interference events have been recorded in the last five years attributed to China and Russia alone, has the attention of National Security officials. But sophisticated satellites are not required if one wants to take out GPS. The reason is that because the satellites are 20,000 km above the earth, once the signals make it to the earth’s surface, they are quite weak. That makes it easy to jam them (flood out the weak GPS signal with a stronger one at the same frequency) or spoof them (fake a GPS signal). These interference events happen day in and day out because it is so easy to do. As an example, in 2019 a delivery driver unintentionally disrupted satellite tracking at Newark airport because of a GPS jammer he kept in his car to hide his location from his employer. GPS jamming is illegal, but the equipment is easy to obtain and inexpensive. In 2016, a Cathay Pacific flight landing at Manila airport lost its GPS 8 miles from the runway. The pilots were told to land the plane by sight, and they were thankfully able to do so safely because weather was cooperative. This was not a rare occurrence, as that same airport recorded over 50 GPS interference events over 2 months that same year. The bottom line is that it would not take much in terms of planning, coordination, and budget to orchestra a large-scale collapse across the country of electrical grids, aviation landing systems, cell phone towers, and stock markets. But the even scarier fact is that although countries like China, Russia, and Iran have terrestrial-based backup systems in place, the US does not, which makes it all the more vulnerable. Despite this magnitude of weakness in the US infrastructure, the US government has a long history of inaction to address it. The first federal policy mandating a backup to GPS was issued in 2004. Since then there have been 9 different reports issued concerned with GPS backup. In 2018, the National Timing Resilience and Security Act was signed into law, requiring that the US erect a GPS backup system in two years. But the effort was not funded at the time and the backup system still does not exist. In February 2020, an Executive Order was published that essentially placed the onus for alternative PNT (position, navigation, and timing) on the shoulders of the private citizen and private industry, hoping to spur market adoption of APNT solutions (alternative PNT). And later in 2020, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report concluding that given the diversity of use cases for GPS in the economy, there will be no one single technology that will replace them all, and instead a portfolio approach is needed. The private sector is starting to step in. In January 2021 the Department of Transportation released a report of performance of several APNT technologies against standardized representative scenarios for a PNT service. One company passed all the criteria, and the rest exhibited piecemeal performance. And late 2020 an APNT industry association was founded around growing the portfolio of market-based APNT solutions. This is where Xairos comes in. Xairos offers satellite-based timing services exploiting a fundamentally different approach from the radio-based technologies currently available. Xairos uses a quantum-based approach that exploits the micro-properties of light that results in 1000x better accuracy of time transfer, on top of freedom from spoofing and hacking that is commonplace now. Stay tuned for more details in a future post.

  • Weekly Takeaways-September 27, 2021

    It is well understood that all modern networks and electronics rely on a timing signal from GPS that is not nearly secure or accurate enough for the job. How do you solve this problem? With entangled photons! Our Product and Strategy Lead, Tanya Ramond, describes the path to a new space-based timing architecture using quantum technology in a recent TTI/Vanguard presentation that you can check out here. The quantum links form the core of a secure and accurate time distribution between satellites and ground nodes. The last mile timing distribution can utilize traditional methods, but will benefit from the recent Facebook Time Appliance which was released as an open source design. The timing accuracy improvement yields huge benefits for distributed databases: “making the timekeeping 80x more precise (making any time discrepancies 80x smaller) made a distributed database run 3x faster - an incredible performance boost on the same server hardware, just from keeping more accurate and more reliable time.” But the long term goal is an accurate and secure timing system that is completely independent of GPS, providing benefits for all telecommunications, networks, industrial robotics, IOT devices, autonomous vehicles, and position devices.

  • The Xairos Time Appliance (XTA)

    Facebook likes time: A giant leap forward for the time and synchronization industry By Tanya Ramond, MBA PhD In August 2021, Facebook announced the release of its Time Appliance, a PCIe card that accesses master time from GPS, preserves that time accuracy by means of its miniaturized atomic clock and distributes the time via NTP. This turns any computer server into a time reference source without dependence on internet connectivity. It also allows multiple computers in a network to be synchronized together with nanosecond accuracy. The Facebook Time Appliance advances the performance of time appliances from the millisecond range into the microsecond PTP distribution, and nanosecond time resolution. While this sounds impressive on its own—and it is—what is monumental is the fact that the entire design for this Time Appliance is open source. The full design and blueprints can be found online, and anyone who can populate a PCB can make their own for less than $2k. This moves the time appliance hardware into the realm of the affordable for countless new users, democratizing the time server. This was arguably the biggest leap forward in computing in a decade. Why? Facebook’s motivations for open sourcing this hardware were multiple. They claim that the decision to open source was to ‘set the industry free from vendor lock’. Current time and synch hardware is proprietary, which makes it difficult to keep up with upgrades. If a component is faulty, the part must be shipped back to the vendor for repair, or else replaced. Addressing security concerns is difficult or impossible to do. Closed source 20 year old code is a security risk, which is a big concern for database managers. With an open source approach, security concerns can be addressed right away. The time and synch industry has remained ‘unchanged for the last 20-25 years and it was time to move it forward. Facebook started the Time Appliance Project in March 2020. This is an open community led by engineers at Facebook and NVIDIA, with project leads hailing from heavy-hitting companies such as Broadcom, Equinix, Nokia, Seagate, Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and Intel. The purpose is to ‘provide a platform to bring together, discuss, standardize and share technologies and solutions across industries with the datacenter applications and datacenter network infrastructure as the main interest… to enable datacenter time-sensitive applications such as consistency in distributed systems, edge computing, AR/VR and IoT’. In short, however, the upshot will be opening up new markets based on more, better, and more accessible timing solutions. There are multiple use cases that open up. These include but are not limited to the following: Database performance efficiency: Better timing in distributed databases means that less computational overhead is required to compensate for timing uncertainty. A recent blog post from NVIDIA cites that ‘making the timekeeping 80x more precise (making any time discrepancies 80x smaller) made a distributed database run 3x faster — an incredible performance boost on the same server hardware, just from keeping more accurate and more reliable time.’ Autonomous vehicles: Autonomous vehicles have a multitude of sensors where data ingest over all sensor streams, synthesis, and processing must be done at a minimum of latency and high precision. Gaming: What teenage (or older) kid would not salivate over eliminating time lag on pulling the trigger and being the first to conquer [insert otherworldly beast name here]? 5G: Delivering the Gigabit/sec data bandwidths and fast internet connectivity that 5G promises relies on precise timing solutions Xairos is uniquely positioned within this ecosystem to ride this new wave of market expansion. Xairos offers its own Timing Appliance (Xairos Timing Appliance or XTA) that in principle operates the same way as the Facebook Time Appliance, but with unsurpassed accuracy and security. Because the XTA transfers time independent of GPS, it is not spoofable like current GPS-based methods. And the XTA uses quantum-based optical methods which unlock 1000x better time transfer accuracy than GPS. All delivered via a satellite-based platform to deliver the geographic reach global users require. XTA uses quantum-based optical methods which unlock 1000x better time transfer accuracy than GPS.

  • Weekly Takeaways-September 20, 2021

    We all rely on GPS for our modern lives. If GPS were to go offline for more than a few hours, the disruptions would spread quickly: from navigation apps, to ATM and credit card transactions, to cell phone service, to internet, before finally the power goes out. And it is not the position and navigation piece that is the biggest concern - it is the timing. After all, we can all survive without our driving directions for a while. But try to live without communications or power. Indeed, this has been a concern about GPS for two decades. And despite a GPS replacement being signed into law in 2018, a backup still hasn’t been built. The push now is to incentivize private companies to offer an alternative position, navigation and timing (APNT) system. If the United States has a GPS backup or APNT in place, the GPS satellites become less of a target. In early 2020 the US Government punted with Executive Order 13905 and put the onus on private industry and individuals to have their own GPS backup plan. As we highlight in our overview video, this is the opportunity that Xairos seeks to address and the topic of a TTI/Vanguard presentation by our Product and Strategy Lead, Tanya Ramond, MBA PhD: “It’s All About Time: Satellite-Based Quantum Synchronization”

  • Quantum Tech Made Simple…

    By Frey Wilson, PhD … Explaining the basics of quantum technologies and debunking some of the common misconceptions. “So, what does quantum mean?” The literal meaning of the word quantum is simply ‘the smallest possible finite amount of stuff’… and the unexpected effects produced on this scale. We call the usual, everyday effects, ‘classical’. “Okay then, what are quantum technologies?” We can harness these unexpected effects to solve challenging problems or do novel things. There are 4 key areas where new technologies are emerging – computers (including machine learning and simulation), imaging, sensing & measurement, and communications. Time synchronization fits into the last of these. “So quantum technologies are a thing of the future?” Several technologies which have been around for a while use quantum effects – LEDs, MRI machines, lasers, and even the transistors which our current computers rely on. The development of those technologies is now considered to be part of the 'first quantum revolution ’. The ‘second quantum revolution’ refers to those now under development. Some of these are even available today! ¨It seems that ‘quantum’ technologies basically mean faster/better…” There is a misconception that a quantum solution to an engineering challenge (for example, quantum computing) means that is, therefore, superior in every way. For example, quantum computers are not ‘ultra-fast versions of normal computers. They usually meet a specific need – quantum computers solve problems which are unable to be solved with the usual computing logic (which revolves around addition and multiplication, etc.). The existence of quantum computers would not mean that it would be quicker to start up your laptop and open Microsoft Word! Quantum cryptography solves the unique challenge of preventing quantum computers from undoing current cryptographic standards. Quantum time synchronization overcomes current limitations with the current global time sync methods. “Quantum physics is basically indistinguishable from magic!” On the scale of ‘the smallest finite possible amount’, there are a few key effects which we can use to our advantage. Whilst these are very challenging to understand compared to our usual grasp of how the world works, we can predict and explain these effects well. “What are the key features of quantum physics?” We can distil these down to about 6 central tenets… 1. Discrete units: Anything that can be considered ‘quantum’ is called a ‘quantum state’ – and these states are ‘discrete units’ meaning that they come in set amounts. For example, 1, 2, 4, 193, or another integer amount of photons in a beam of light. This applies to lots of different properties – the amount of energy that an electron in an atom has or the amount of charge a particle has. These discrete amounts are called ‘quanta’. 2. Wave-particle duality: Quantum states sometimes look and behave like waves, and sometimes look and behave like particles. Even both at the same time. 3. Uncertainty principle: Measurement of quantum particles is hard. Certain related properties (e.g. energy and time, or position and momentum) cannot both be known with an exact precision simultaneously. The limit for this precision is related to a value called ‘Planck’s constant’. 4. Superposition: Not only is measurement hard, but a quantum particle that isn’t measured will behave differently to one that we do observe and measure. Up until we measure it, it behaves as though it is doing all possible things at once. We call this superposition. Because of this, we can only ever know a probability that a quantum state will behave a certain way. This concept is where the famous ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ thought experiment comes from. 5. No-cloning theorem: Partly because measurement is so hard, it is impossible to create an identical and separate copy of an arbitrary unknown quantum state. A consequence of this is that, if you encode some information on a quantum state (this is called a ‘qubit’, short for quantum bit), then it ensures information cannot be exactly copied. It is this tenet which forms the basis for security in many proposed quantum protocols. 6. Entanglement: Under some conditions, groups of quantum states can be generated such that their properties are correlated beyond what is possible in classical physics. It can be thought of as an extension of superposition, with multiple quantum states. This means that, even at a great distance or when separated by barriers, two entangled quantum states would have related properties. If you changed a property in one, the other would also be affected. This is the key property that we leverage for our time synchronization method. “How do we use this for time synchronization?” We can use the last of these properties, entanglement, to communicate easily with a remote party, perhaps on the other side of the globe. If we both have a source of entangled photon pairs (and a receiver to detect them with) we can send one half of the pair to the other party (and measure for ourselves the other half), and vice versa. We can both now check when the sent photons were detected at our receiver. Armed with this information, and comparing correlated properties, we can negotiate the time difference between the clocks at our receivers. As a bonus, the no-cloning theorem means that we could put checks in place to check for spoofing. “Isn’t time synchronization already ‘done’?” Currently, time synchronization is performed by two parties sending classical radio signals to each other. The two compare measured properties, such as the phase, and use this to calculate the distance between themselves (and other reference points). From this, they can calculate their relative timing and positioning. This is how GPS (global positioning system) currently works. The limitations on this method have a proportional effect on how accurate GPS can be. Harnessing quantum effects to synchronize clocks means that we get picosecond precision (10-12) with a global reach. This translates to around millimeter precision for GPS. Another limitation with GPS is that it is relatively straightforward to spoof – the no-cloning theorem of quantum particles means that this is much harder. “Quantum physics is basically indistinguishable from magic!”

  • The Privatization of Time

    By David Mitlyng, MBA A Modern Horror Story with A Timeless Ending? Imagine you wake up one morning and your location apps are offline. Traffic is halted and planes are grounded worldwide. By evening, you lose cell service. A few hours later, your internet, which has been slow all day, blanks out. You wake up the next day and the power is out. Drive over to the next town, the same thing. ATMs and credit cards don't work, gas stations and grocery stores are closed. The culprit …… GPS is down. Why? Who knows? Maybe the satellites were destroyed by Russian "kamikaze" satellites or Chinese "kidnapper" satellites. Or maybe they were blinded, jammed, or hacked. It may not even be intentional; maybe it was interference or an operator error, or even space junk. The US is unable to communicate to find out why. The Reality This is more than just a fictional story – it is a well-known within government agencies and private industry that our reliance on GPS is a major problem. It was even highlighted recently at Space Symposium by Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond: “Over the last two years, China and Russia have continued to build an entire spectrum of threats, including “reversible jammers” and “ground-based laser systems capable of blinding or damaging satellites...China has a satellite with a robotic arm that is on-orbit today. This technology could be used in the future to grab other satellites. Both have ground-based missiles capable of destroying our satellites in orbit.” As one example of this, consider the events of January 26, 2016, when communications, emergency radios, and digital broadcasts around the world went offline. Even power grids started to malfunction and network engineers scrambled frantically to prevent a global communication meltdown. The culprit: a simple a 13-microsecond error in GPS clocks. Despite its name, GPS is not about maps; it’s about time. Over half of the $1.4T in economic benefits comes from its role as the world’s timekeeper. GPS is not nearly secure or accurate enough for modern networks, a problem that is going to get worse. Because of this there is a multi-billion dollar effort is underway to build a GPS replacement. The Importance of Timing for the World All of the world’s data run through very precisely aligned networks. Think of these data networks as analogous to a train network. Now consider what happens if the clocks at each of the train stations are only accurate to ten minutes. Conductors would be forced to maintain a ten-minute buffer - the train scheduled to depart at 8 am would be held up until the clock on the wall says 8:10 am. As a result, only six trains an hour could leave a platform (bandwidth is reduced) and ten minutes would stack up at each station down the line (latency increases). The same thing happens in a network: the efficient flow of data, like trains, requires very precise synchronization. But, as mentioned previously, GPS is not up to the task. Because of this, a $1.5B industry of timing solutions has emerged that attempts to provide network stability in times when GPS is offline. What will this timing solution do for us? Telcos that are moving to 5G standards need to implement new technologies that require precision timing between the backhaul network, base stations, and mobile handsets. Better precision timing potentially unlocks double the bandwidth and four times the users within an existing network. Bandwidth is golden. Bandwidth=dollars gained. Precision timing is also valuable for Private Networks for Industry 4.0 facilities that utilize Time Sensitive Networks (TSN) for automated manufacturing. Increased, secure, reliable time=efficiency increase which=dollars gained. Timing is also critical for financial transactions, both for exchanges and the traders they serve. Exchanges require verifiable financial timestamps for transactions made by a global network of customers. Precision timing also helps reduce latency for high-frequency traders. Reliable, secure time=dollars gained. For defense and government agencies, secure and precise timing is necessary for secure communications, data fusion, deep space missions, power grids, and time difference of arrival (TDOA) for locating signals. Secure, reliable, time=effective, reliable, and safe networks. Who Owns Time? In spite of the critical role that timing plays in the modern world, it can be argued that nobody really owns time. GPS has become the de factor timekeeper for the world, but only because of circumstance. GPS was originally started as a DoD project in 1973 during the height of the Cold War and was only intended for use by the United States military. But it happened to come online right as the world’s networks were moving from analog to digital, and there was a need for a global timing reference to grease these new networks. Civilian use was allowed following an executive order from President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The military kept the best signals for internal use, which was made available for the general population by the Clinton Administration in 2000. Even now, there is a call to develop a next-generation GPS system for US, DoD use only. Government replacements for GPS has already begun by government agencies around the world, including Beidou in China, Galileo in Europe, GLONASS in Russia, NavIC in India, and Michibiki in Japan. And there is always a trend towards privatization within the United States – consider that the internet, computers, cell phones, all started as development US government projects. And this trend has accelerated within the space industry. Consider the privatization of launch vehicles, satellites, even lunar and Mars missions that were once the domain, of NASA alone. The time is right for a new global timing solution.

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