After millions of pounds of funding from the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) under the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, British scientists have constructed what they claim to be humanity’s first quantum ‘compass,’ a navigational device independent of the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS).
The instrument, built by scientists at the Imperial College in London, England, is claimed to be able to ascertain the exact location of anything on Earth without relying on satellites, as does the GPS network.
”It’s completely self-contained,” said Joseph Cotter, a researcher at the Centre for Cold Matter at Imperial College, speaking to Financial Times this week.
“It’s particularly useful if you want to navigate a large ship or autonomous vehicles over long periods of time, without having to send or receive any other signals to know where you are,” he added.
The MoD has been investing enormous amounts of money into constructing independent navigation devices, particularly for use on its nuclear submarines.
GPS, a network of some 20 satellites orbiting the Earth, was developed by the US military to determine one’s precise location. A known downside to GPS technology, however, is that it can be blocked or modified.
“Satellites can lose signal sometimes due to the space environment or tall buildings, or they can be taken down maliciously, if someone tries to turn them off or they can be spoofed so you think you’re somewhere you’re not,” Cotter said. “It’s not possible to get a GPS signal everywhere on earth,” he noted.
However, the new ‘compass,’ also called a quantum accelerometer, measures how an object’s velocity changes over time, by using the starting point of an object and measuring how an object’s velocity changes.
Although accelerometers already exist in mobile phones and laptops, they must be recalibrated often. A quantum device — such as that recently developed by scientists — measures how supercooled atoms move at very low temperatures (near absolute zero). At such temperatures, atoms behave in a ‘quantum’ manner, acting simultaneously as both particles and waves.
A laser, designed by Glasgow-based MSquared, was used to manipulate extremely cold atoms and determine how they respond to acceleration.
“Pirates are now sophisticated enough to cause disruptions to ships, and lure them to rocks or take over and board them by disrupting GPS,” Graeme Malcolm, founder and CEO of MSquared told Ft.com.
“They can be an even bigger issue in areas of defence and security, where the resilience and security of cities and countries are impacted. This new device is an absolute reference that goes down to the level of atoms.”
“This commercially-viable quantum device will put the UK at the heart of the coming quantum age. The collaborative efforts to realise the potential of quantum navigation illustrate Britain’s unique strength in bringing together industry and academia — building on advancements at the frontier of science to create real-world applications for the betterment of society,” Malcolm declared, cited by Scotsman.com.