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Quantum ‘compass’ could eventually render satellite navigation a thing of the past

UK tech company M Squared and Imperial College London have unveiled a transportable, standalone quantum accelerometer. 

The device, presented at the National Quantum Technologies Showcase, is a significant step towards GPS-free navigation systems. 

Typically, navigation relies on global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), which receive and send signals from satellites orbiting Earth. The accelerometer does not rely on external signals, which can often become unavailable due to interference or blockages.

Dr Joseph Thom, quantum technology Scientist at M Squared, commented on the development: “As part of our work in commercialising cold atom quantum sensors, we developed a universal laser system for cold atom-based sensors that we have already implemented in our quantum gravimeter.

“This laser is now also used in the quantum accelerometer we have built in collaboration with Imperial. Combining high power, exceptionally low noise and frequency tunability, the laser system cools the atoms and provides the optical ruler for the acceleration measurements,” he said.

While accelerometers have existed for some time and can be found in many of today’s objects such as smartphones and computers, they are unable to maintain their accuracy for long periods of times without an external reference point.

To overcome this, the quantum accelerometer relies on the precision and accuracy made possible by measuring properties of supercool atoms, which behave like both matter and waves at extremely low temperatures.

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.”

The current system is designed for navigation of large vehicles, such as ships and trains. 

Professor Ed Hinds, from the Centre for Cold Matter at Imperial, added: “I think it’s tremendously exciting that this quantum technology is now moving out of the basic science lab and being applied to problems in the wider world, all from the fantastic sensitivity and reliability that you can only get from these quantum systems.”

Dr Graeme Malcolm, founder and CEO of M Squared, concluded: “This commercially viable quantum device, the accelerometer, will put the UK at the heart of the coming quantum age. The collaborative efforts to realise the potential of quantum navigation illustrate Britain’s unique strength in bringing together industry and academia – building on advancements at the frontier of science, out of the laboratory to create real-world applications for the betterment of society.”