The Royal Navy has teamed up with Imperial College London to test a new cutting-edge navigation system. A prototype quantum sensor, developed by academics at Imperial College London, was used on Royal Navy experimentation and trials ship XV Patrick Blackett. The partnership between NavyX, the navy’s technology and experimentation experts, and Imperial College London is in early stages but is a big step forward. The technology has the potential in the future to provide GPS-free navigation, making it less susceptible to jamming, imitation or other sabotage. While many navigation systems rely on global satellite systems, such as GPS, which use signals from satellites orbiting the earth, the quantum sensor is a new type of accelerometer which measures how an object’s speed changes 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 different devices such as mobile phones and laptops. However, these sensors cannot maintain their accuracy over longer periods of time without external reference. The quantum accelerometer uses ultracold atoms to make highly accurate measurements. When cooled to extremely low temperatures the atoms start to display their ‘quantum’ nature, resulting in wave-like properties. As the atoms move through the sensor, an ‘optical ruler’ is formed by using a series of laser pulses.
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.”
Commander Michael Hutchinson, Commanding Officer of XV Patrick Blackett, said: “Working with Imperial College London on this project has been an exciting and interesting opportunity for all of us. 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.”
This allows the acceleration of the atoms to be precisely measured. The experiment by Imperial College London and the Royal Navy is the first step towards understanding the application and use of quantum-enabled navigation in areas which have poor or no satellite coverage. The sensor was used in a Qinetiq-developed Navy PODS (Persistent Operational Deployment System) – interchangeable modules (shipping containers) that can be loaded onto different vessels to provide extra space for technology and kit for specific operational tasking.