GPS killer? Quantum 'compass' promises satellite-free navigation

Scientists develop a satellite-free navigation system using super-cooled atoms.

Scientists in the UK have unveiled a new quantum accelerometer that is capable of providing accurate navigation information without the help of signals from navigation satellites used in GPS.

The transportable quantum accelerometer could address GPS's dependence on satellite signals, which can be jammed or spoofed by an attacker, rendering the system useless for navigational information.

Instead of using GPS, scientists from Imperial College London and UK laser instrument maker M Squared have demonstrated a way to measure how super-cooled atoms respond when inside an accelerating vehicle.

Accelerometers are used for navigation, but as the researchers explain, they quickly lose accuracy over time unless aided by satellite signals.

The satellite-free navigational device they created relies on M Squared's laser, which cools atoms in a chamber to the point where they behave in a quantum way, as both matter and waves.

When a vehicle carrying the device moves, the wave properties of the cooled atoms are affected by its acceleration. A laser beam that acts as an 'optical ruler' measures how atoms move over time.

"When the atoms are ultra-cold we have to use quantum mechanics to describe how they move, and this allows us to make what we call an atom interferometer," explained Dr Joseph Cotter, from the Centre for Cold Matter at Imperial.

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As shown in the demonstration video, the quantum accelerometer isn't anywhere near small enough to be useful for GPS-free navigation on phones, but it could be used in ships and trains once further developed.

M Squared said through this project it had built "a universal laser system for cold atom-based sensors" that's already been implemented in its quantum gravimeter, and is now used in a quantum accelerometer.

Currently the system only measures movement on a single axis, but the scientists say it can be extended to become a fully independent navigational system.

The system was funded through the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory's Future Sensing and Situational Awareness program, which is seeking to develop a range of security technologies, including non-GPS position and navigation systems.

quantumcompassimperialnov18.jpg

The quantum accelerometer isn't yet anywhere near small enough to be useful for GPS-free navigation on phones.

Image: Imperial College/YouTube

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