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Royal Navy sets course for quantum leap in navigation

02 June 2023

The Royal Navy has joined forces with Imperial College London to test a prototype quantum sensor that could pave the way for GPS-free navigation.

Image: Thomas Angus, Imperial College London
Image: Thomas Angus, Imperial College London

In today's navigation systems, reliance on global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) like GPS can be problematic. signals can be obstructed by tall buildings and they are susceptible to interference, imitation or denial, posing significant challenges to accurate navigation. It has been estimated that a single day of satellite service disruption costs the UK £1 billion.

While satellite-free navigation systems do exist, their accuracy gradually diminishes over time unless regularly calibrated with satellites. The quantum sensor has the potential to eliminate this drift, substantially enhancing accuracy over extended periods.

Imperial College London introduced the initial "quantum compass" prototype in 2018 and has since refined the technology for field testing.
Real-world environments
The latest quantum sensor developed by Imperial College London was integrated into a Qinetiq NavyPOD, an interchangeable rapid prototyping platform, and was transported to London aboard a new Royal Navy research vessel, the XV Patrick Blackett.

This experiment represents the first step towards understanding the benefits of quantum-enabled navigation, particularly in areas where satellite signals are unavailable.

Dr Joseph Cotter, Lead Scientist on the quantum sensor from the Department of Physics at Imperial, said: “Access to the Patrick Blackett provides us with a unique opportunity to take quantum sensors out of the lab and into the real-world environments, where they are needed.”

“Working with Imperial College London on this project has been an exciting and interesting opportunity for all of us,” said Commander Michael Hutchinson, Commanding Officer of XV Patrick Blackett. “So far, the testing has gone well but the technology is still in its very early stages. It’s great to be a part of Royal Navy history.”

Exploiting ultracold atoms
The quantum sensor is a new type of accelerometer. Accelerometers measure changes in an object’s velocity over time. By combining this information with rotation measurements and the initial position of the object, the current location can be calculated.

Conventional accelerometers are used in many applications, such as mobile phones and laptops. However, these sensors lose accuracy over longer periods without an external reference.

The quantum accelerometer employs ultracold atoms to achieve highly accurate measurements. At extremely low temperatures, these atoms exhibit their "quantum" nature, resulting in wave-like properties. As the atoms move through the sensor, an ‘optical ruler’ is formed using a series of laser pulses, enabling precise measurement of their acceleration.

Quantum legacy
Professor Peter Haynes, Director of QuEST at Imperial, says: “The quantum accelerometer is a pioneering technology at the forefront of quantum innovation. It has the potential to transform navigation by making it more accurate and secure.

"This work represents the latest advance in Imperial's long track record of world-leading research in quantum science and technology. With deep expertise in basic science, engineering and translation, we are focused on making quantum technologies - and the benefits they hold – a reality."

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