Quantum navigator: A new sensor could make GPS on ships unnecessary

Satellite navigation systems such as GPS, Galileo or GLONASS are essential for logistics and transport. The problem: they only work if the signal is strong enough, the area is actually covered by satellites and there are no technical failures. Plus, there’s always the potential for jamming signals from the military or hackers – at least in the case of civilian navigation systems, which can be surprisingly easily thrown out of whack.

A purely local navigation system, for example in a ship, which is at least as accurate as GPS and the like, would therefore help immensely – not only in terms of reliability. A group of researchers from the French Center national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) is now working on an interesting new solution that uses physical quantum effects.

A team led by research director and physicist Philippe Bouyer, himself a specialist in high-precision inertial sensors, has created a system they call the 3D Quantum Acceleration Sensor. The system uses quantum effects to make the accelerometers built into many devices—from cars to cell phones to computer clocks—accurate enough for navigation purposes, according to “New Scientist.”

The technology needed to do this is still a prototype. It is contained in a small metal box containing three laser systems and a container of rubidium atoms kept cold just above absolute zero. At these temperatures, atoms behave more like waves, whose motions can be measured in three dimensions by bombarding them with three lasers. The wave patterns that occur allow an ultra-precise calculation of acceleration in 3D space.

Accuracy and three-dimensionality is especially necessary when the accelerometer is on ships or aircraft, which have natural vibrations and can interfere with the signal. It was possible to take all of this into account and create an ultra-precise “offline” navigation system. The result is the Hybrid Quantum Accelerometer Triad, which at 1 kHz promises 50 times more stability compared to classical acceleration sensors with significantly higher accuracy. In this way, less accurate inertial navigation systems could one day be replaced.


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