World’s first quantum ‘compass’

That uses atoms instead of satellites to navigate could make sat-nav obsolete The accelerometer overcomes many of the issues of traditional GPS  systems, such as blockages from tall buildings or signal jamming

By Anthony Cuthbertson

UK scientists have demonstrated the world’s first standalone quantum “compass,” which allows highly accurate navigation without the need for satellites. Researchers from Imperial College London and Glasgow-based laser firm M Squared who built the device say it overcomes many of the issues of traditional GPS systems, such as blockages from tall buildings or signal jamming.

“It’s self-contained and transportable, so can be used to navigate anything that moves, from a ship to an aircraft,” Graeme Malcolm, CEO of M Squared, told The Independent. “Eventually we could even use the technology to navigate ourselves, as we’re on a path towards miniaturising it to the point it could fit in a smartphone.”

The device represents the UK’s first commercially viable quantum accelerometer, which is a far more advanced version of the sorts of accelerometers that currently exist in today’s mobile phones and laptops.

The idea of using accelerometers for navigating is not a new one  as they measure how quickly the speed of an object is changing in time though until now accelerometers have not been accurate enough to match other technologies like GPS. The quantum accelerometer relies on the precision and accuracy made possible by measuring properties of super-cool atoms, which means any loss in accuracy is “immeasurably small”.

Dr Joseph Cotter, from the Centre for Cold Matter at Imperial, said: “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.”

Real-world applications for the device could first be seen in the shipping industry, as it offers a solution to some of the issues presented by GPS navigation. “We need new types of navigation because at the moment the world relies very heavily on the global network of satellites to tell everybody where they are,” said Professor Ed Hinds, director of the Centre for Cold Matter at Imperial College London.

“It’s actually rather easy for that system to be emulated and in fact it’s been estimated that the UK alone stands to lose about a billion pounds a day if the satellite navigation system were denied.” GPS emulation  or signal spoofing  can also put cargo ships at risk to piracy, Dr Malcolm said, with pirates known to spoof signals in order to lure high-value cargos to dangerous areas. “This is just the start of the journey for quantum navigation,” he said.

“Scientists like Heisenberg and Einstein described these quantum ideas in their theories, but it’s taken until now to actually physically make them a reality. “The step forward this kind of technology offers is unbelievable. First there was analogue, then digital  the next great leap is quantum.”

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