Quantum, R&D, And Staying True To Your Roots

An interview with Dr Thierry Botter, Head Of Airbus Blue Sky Research

It’s no secret that quantum is complicated. When we start looking at things at the level of individual atoms, the standard laws of physics break down. However, the physics of the atomic scale – quantum mechanics – can offer us huge benefits in the form of quantum technologies. Harnessing quantum features makes it possible to create technology that is much more sophisticated than its classical counterparts. This gives us a means of processing information that is exponentially more powerful than traditional computing techniques.

The promise of finding better solutions to increasingly complex problems with quantum underpins much of the work of Dr Thierry Botter, Head of Blue Sky Research at aerospace leader Airbus. It turns out that when you combine atomic physics, aerospace engineering, and a deep seated commitment to innovation, impressive things can happen…

Q is for quantum

At Airbus, the pursuit of quantum technologies is segmented into three different avenues: quantum computing, quantum communications and quantum sensing. Of these, quantum computing is perhaps the most advanced, since, as Botter notes, it is a field that Airbus has been interested in for some time. From the investment by Airbus Ventures in the quantum computing startup QC Ware in 2016, the company is now exploring a range of different projects.

“Finding solutions – especially at large scales, at Airbus scales – is a complicated task,” says Botter. “We realised that quantum computers were most beneficial to us as a tool within our ongoing High Performance Computing (HPC) efforts and needs. The challenging computational problems we face include things like fault tree analyses – where, in any large engineering system you want to break it down into its components and sub components, and understand how failures propagate through the system. Other areas include flight physics and optimised planning. The potential applications are quite varied.”

As Botter notes, applying quantum computers within the company’s traditional High Performance Computing framework allowed for the use of the same metrics in quantum as HPC. Importantly, this ensured a focus on results, avoiding the trap of using quantum for its own sake.

“Instead of asking the question of how quantum a solution might be or treating quantum computers for their exotic nature,” Botter states, “we instead wanted to focus on the performance aspect that we could get. So how quickly could we get a solution, how could it help in transforming the way we approach calculations.”

This solution based approach to quantum computing is now something that Botter is beginning to propagate into the wider Airbus community.

“We’ve matured to the point where we’re now looking at ways in which we can get more and more HPC players at Airbus involved, exploring how quantum computers can help them,” says Botter. “This is very much both locally, for their individual needs, and at the same time distributed for the entire company. We have a very pragmatic approach. It is not expected that quantum computers will impact what we are doing today, but we want to prepare for the future. We want to make sure that we remain at the forefront of this, so it’s important to have these early explorations and to be an early adopter of this technology.”

Innovation, innovation, communication

Airbus’ commitment to innovation is demonstrated by the very existence of Blue Sky research inside the company. For Botter, providing a link between Blue Sky and the wider Airbus community is extremely important, but it does come with certain challenges.

“I drive a small team whose focus is on basic research, so it’s important to develop strong connections to the rest of the company,” Botter says. “These connections mean that the work we do can resonate and be taken up by different corners of the business. Granted there is some delay involved in this. However, this is natural as we are at the very forefront of research and people distributed around the group have a more immediate focus in their work.”

A key part of sustaining interest in basic research at Airbus is communication. Botter and his team need to offer colleagues effective solutions to their problems. This involves building internal relationships and presenting complex scientific ideas in a language that everyone can understand.

“Developing that relationship and that structure to facilitate the transition of blue sky technology to elsewhere around the company is a challenge, but it’s a very exciting one because it allows Airbus as a whole to prepare itself for the future,” Botter says. “When you are able to make this link, to be this bridge, not only are you serving the mission that the blue sky team has within its purview, but you’re really enabling something more. This is because now you’re you are able to take a technology, allow it to grow and ultimately to find its way to an end product within a big player like Airbus.”

A balance of science and business

This element of navigating the boundaries from one entity to another is also indicative of a further challenge: bridging the gap between scientific research and industry. For whilst it may be possible for academia and business to operate in the same space, they don’t necessarily share the same overall objectives.

“What motivates academics in their work and in their research doesn’t always line up with the needs and the focus of an industry player like Airbus,” Botter notes. “So working together means developing a language that can be understood by both sides. We need to be able to speak in a way that is understandable to academics and that appeals to them – because ultimately we want to motivate them to work on solutions, on the challenges that Airbus is facing.”

Meeting the needs of both sides in this kind of relationship also implicates working practices, challenging the traditional impulse many businesses have to protect their intellectual property (IP).

“We have projects where we are directly interfacing with academics,” says Botter. “Ultimately professors, academics – students as well – have the desire to publish, to add to the scientific debate. To work in a closed off, segmented way doesn’t necessarily appeal to them.”

“We therefore need to have a certain degree of openness. We want those new, fresh ideas, we want academics to think of us, to turn to us, to be able to have this exchange with them. We don’t have all the answers. Yes we’re looking inwards as to what are some of the needs and some of the challenges that we want to address, but we’re also looking outwards. We need to find that right balance between the natural tendencies of industry to be conscious of IP and proprietary knowledge, but at the same time favouring a connection to the outside academic world.”

Botter’s outlook on these difficulties is largely positive, as he acknowledges that they come with their own distinct opportunities.

“It takes some finesse, it takes some work to try and find that happy medium, but again it’s a challenge that’s exciting. When it does work well you can really have an augmented effect – I would say sort of a snowball – on the impact that work can have.”

Made in Canada

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the balancing act between industry and academia that Botter faces at Airbus is mirrored by his own background. His academic interests have always intersected the realms of engineering and physics, and he has held postdoctoral research positions as well as roles in business.

“The opportunity that is presented at Airbus to be able to touch on basic research but within an industry context, for me – as someone who comes from the science world and obviously has a scientist’s soul deep down – is a wonderful opportunity,” he says. “It’s a chance to give shape, to give form and to give life to some of this basic science.”

This dual nature of business and science also finds parallels in Botter’s early life and upbringing in Canada.

“The approach I have in my work is not only a reflection of the scientific and professional development that I’ve had in the recent past, but also some of the fundamentals that I developed while in Canada. I was born and raised in the Ottawa valley, which is the border between the two languages of French and English. My undergraduate degree was in engineering and physics – again, like everything else, this was very much at the border between basic research and engineering. I’m quite proud of those initial first steps that I took in the science world.”

Such an anecdote is proof, if any were needed, that diversity in skills and background is a real strength in business. From pursuing the highly complex technologies around quantum, to navigating the needs of academia and industry, Botter clearly has the skills to lead Airbus on to ever greater heights. Supporting corporate growth whilst at the same time driving scientific discovery? Now that’s a balancing act to be proud of.

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