The Royal Navy has conducted the first trials of a quantum navigation system that would allow ships to know their precise location anywhere in the world without using GPS.
The technique, developed by physicists at Imperial College London, uses the quantum properties of atoms to measure the motion of objects more precisely than traditional methods.
Ships equipped with the technology can navigate more accurately than they could with charts and compasses and without the satellite navigation the world relies on now.
“Sometimes it interferes, sometimes it doesn’t work,” said Captain Tom Ryan, head of Navy X, the Royal Navy’s research arm.
“So being able to map your position accurately, very accurately, in a novel way is fundamental to the way the Royal Navy and the military do business.”
royal navy How to use the technology will not be specified.
But the fact that subs can’t use GPS while submerged, and the Navy doesn’t tend to comment on any technology used on subs, could be a clue.
We’re standing on the bridge of the Navy’s new experimental ship, the XV Patrick Blackett.
The ship is sleek, with tinted windows, a sleek black hull, and a scary-looking carbon-fiber drone on deck—it’s very James Bond-like.
However, the quantum accelerometer it was testing could not be less.
Sitting in a shipping container, secured by cargo straps, is a white box the size of a refrigerator, hooked up to a computer.
“It’s a very exotic environment for one of these sensors,” said Dr Chocotte of Imperial College, who helped develop it.
“One of the biggest challenges is getting it to work in the real world where things are constantly changing and magnetic fields are constantly changing.
“We need to manage a lot of vibrations to keep this thing stable enough to be able to run.”
The contents of the white box are secret, so in order to see how it works, we visited a prototype of it at Imperial College’s Blackett Laboratory (named, by accident, after the same man as the ship – A former Navy physicist who won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of cosmic rays).
A quantum accelerometer — to give it its proper name — consists of a flattened steel ball with various tubing and wires inside.
But it’s essentially a chamber that houses, cools and measures a cloud of about 1 billion rubidium-87 atoms.
The researchers used lasers to trap atoms.
When they’re just a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero, their quantum-like behavior starts to dominate: They start behaving less like particles and more like waves.
By manipulating and measuring this behavior, they could measure the effect of gravity on their system with extreme accuracy, allowing them to measure the speed and direction of their motion.
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“By encoding these acceleration and rotation signals in the atoms’ internal states, it will protect them from real-world influences,” Dr Cotter said.
“This allows us to run them for longer, longer periods of time, which in the future will allow you to navigate for longer periods of time without having to use some other technique to fix your references.”
The lab equipment measures position approximately every second.
By knowing the direction of travel over time, the computer can constantly check the position of the ship.
A crude version of this approach, called an inertial navigation system, is used in missiles, spacecraft and submarines.
The naval trials should give them an idea of whether fragile quantum systems can be made robust enough to actually work in life at sea.