Quantum sensor developed at Imperial College London shows potential for GPS-free navigation

Researchers at Imperial College London have collaborated with the Royal Navy to conduct tests on a groundbreaking quantum sensor that could revolutionize navigation systems. This represents a crucial milestone in the transition of quantum technologies from the confines of the laboratory to practical applications.

Traditional navigation systems heavily rely on global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) like GPS, which rely on signals transmitted by orbiting satellites. Unfortunately, GPS navigation is not always reliable, as tall buildings and other obstacles can obstruct the satellite signals. Moreover, these systems are vulnerable to interference, imitation, and denial, which compromises accurate navigation. The potential cost of a single day without satellite service has been estimated to reach £1 billion in the UK.

While self-contained satellite-free navigation systems do exist, they suffer from a drift in accuracy over time and require regular calibration with satellites to maintain their precision. The introduction of quantum sensors could eliminate this issue by significantly improving long-term accuracy.

In 2018, the team at Imperial College London unveiled their initial prototype of a “quantum compass.” Since then, they have diligently enhanced the technology, leading to its successful field testing.

Overall, the collaboration between Imperial College London and the Royal Navy marks an important advancement in quantum technology, paving the way for practical implementation in real-world settings.

Real-world environments

The most recent quantum sensor developed by Imperial College London was integrated into a Qinetiq NavyPOD, an adaptable rapid prototyping platform. It was then transported to London aboard the XV Patrick Blackett, a new research vessel of the Royal Navy.

This experiment represents an initial endeavor to explore the practical applications and potential benefits of quantum-enabled navigation, particularly in areas where satellite signals are inaccessible.

Dr. Joseph Cotter, the lead scientist behind the quantum sensor at Imperial’s Department of Physics, expressed the significance of utilizing the XV Patrick Blackett for this endeavor, stating, “Having access to the Patrick Blackett allows us a unique opportunity to deploy quantum sensors in real-world environments where they are truly required.”

Commander Michael Hutchinson, the Commanding Officer of the XV Patrick Blackett, shared his excitement about collaborating with Imperial College London on this project. He acknowledged that although the testing is still in its early stages, the results thus far have been promising. Commander Hutchinson also expressed his pride in being a part of Royal Navy history through this collaboration.

An earlier prototype of the technology in the lab at Imperial College London. Credit: Thomas Angus, Imperial College London

Exploiting ultracold atoms

The Imperial quantum sensor represents a novel type of accelerometer that measures changes in an object’s velocity over time. By combining this data with rotation measurements and the object’s initial position, it becomes possible to determine its current location.

While conventional accelerometers are commonly found in devices like smartphones and laptops, they struggle to maintain accuracy over extended periods without an external reference.

The quantum accelerometer, however, leverages ultracold atoms to achieve highly precise measurements. When these atoms are cooled to extremely low temperatures, their quantum properties become apparent, exhibiting wave-like characteristics. As the atoms traverse the sensor, a sequence of laser pulses creates an “optical ruler,” allowing for the precise measurement of the atoms’ acceleration.

Quantum legacy

These recent tests build upon Imperial College’s rich heritage of quantum research. In order to translate discoveries in quantum science into groundbreaking technologies, Imperial has established the Centre for Quantum Engineering, Science, and Technology (QuEST).

Professor Peter Haynes, the Director of QuEST at Imperial, describes the quantum accelerometer as an innovative technology at the forefront of quantum advancements. Its potential to revolutionize navigation by enhancing accuracy and security is noteworthy.

This achievement is the latest in a series of pioneering contributions by Imperial College to the field of quantum science and technology. With their profound expertise spanning fundamental science, engineering, and application, the university is dedicated to transforming quantum technologies into practical realities that offer significant benefits.

Interestingly, the XV Patrick Blackett ship holds another connection to Imperial College. Professor Lord Blackett, a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1948, served as the head of the Department of Physics at Imperial College from 1953 to 1963. To this day, the main building on the South Kensington campus proudly bears his name, commemorating his remarkable legacy.

Source: Imperial College London

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