At 1776, Australian engineering firm sets sights on Defense Department


Michael Brett, chief operating officer of Australia-based Aerospace Concepts, is working at 1776 in an attempt to offer the company’s services in the United States. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan)

Washington’s tech incubator 1776 is known for housing fledgling start-ups, providing select businesses with mentors and office space.

One the incubator’s newer members is different from its neighbors, many of whom develop mobile and Web software for consumers. Aerospace Concepts, an engineering consulting company based in Australia, is operating its U.S. headquarters out of 1776’s office in downtown Washington, and it is teaming with Lockheed Martin to try out a futuristic technology called quantum computing.

Quantum computing systems often use atomic particles called “qubits” to compute, instead of the 1’s and 0’s in traditional computing. In theory, quantum systems are better and faster at solving problems with rapidly changing variables. Lockheed Martin owns one of two commercially sold quantum systems in the world; Google owns the other.

With its footprint in the District, Aerospace Concepts is hoping to market its engineering and consulting services to the Defense Department, according to Chief Operating Officer Michael Brett, one of two Aerospace Concepts employees in the United States.

The company primarily contracts with the Australian defense department, Brett explained — recent projects include designing a large telescope and other astronomy tools, for example. The company’s 30 employees — most of whom work in Adelaide, Australia — also focus on solving complex problems involving the automotive industry, robotics and aircraft certification, among others.

“Our perception is that we have something to offer in the U.S. market — our skills in dealing with complex systems,” Brett said. “We wanted to come to the U.S. and test our mettle against the best and see if we could build out our business in this market.”

In early May, Aerospace Concepts embarked on a partnership with Lockheed Martin that would allow the consulting firm to access Lockheed’s quantum computer, the D-Wave 2. Aerospace Concepts is the first business that Lockheed has asked to test out the system — over the past couple of years, the defense giant has invested in quantum computing research centers at the University of Maryland and the University of Southern California.

Lockheed’s quantum computing system is stored on USC’s campus — and takes up the size of a large room — so Aerospace Concepts’ engineers in Australia access it through the Internet cloud.

Embracing quantum computing might help the company reach a broader customer base by improving its ability to answer complex questions, Brett said.

For instance, Aerospace concepts often performs risk analysis for aerospace vehicles. “We do work predicting where rockets and re-entry space crafts are going to land,” Brett said. “To do that work is extremely computationally intensive, and requires weeks of processing on a high-performance computing farm.”

The millions of simulations that a risk analysis requires might be done more efficiently using a quantum system, he explained. The company is also considering using the system to help quickly and accurately classify images, such as the ones gathered from satellites, and organizing them into maps, for instance.

Aerospace is also researching partnerships with high-frequency stock trading organizations to help them optimize their trading algorithms, Brett said.

Before Lockheed approached Aerospace Concepts more than a year ago, the company was not considering using quantum computing, Brett said. Over the past 18 months, Lockheed has been training the company’s staff to use the system so they could evaluate its capabilities, said Ray Johnson, Lockheed’s chief technology officer.

“In addition to the shared learning, the partnership deepens our relationship with Australian industry and helps make Aerospace Concepts more globally competitive,” Johnson said.

Aerospace Concepts has dedicated six employees to the quantum research team, and will soon be fundraising to hire more, Brett said. Though the company is investing in the new technology, quantum is “for a very specific job that will augment the work we already do,” Brett said. “It’s definitely a complementary technology rather than a replacement technology.”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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