UK scientists have demonstrated the world's first standalone quantum "compass," which allows highly accurate navigation without the need for satellites.

Researchers from Imperial College London and Glasgow-based laser firm M Squared who built the device say it overcomes many of the issues of traditional GPS systems, such as blockages from tall buildings or signal jamming.

"It's self-contained and transportable, so can be used to navigate anything that moves, from a ship to an aircraft," Graeme Malcolm, CEO of M Squared, told The Independent. "Eventually we could even use the technology to navigate ourselves, as we're on a path towards miniaturising it to the point it could fit in a smartphone."

The first standalone quantum accelerometer is currently a size that would only be suitable for large ships or aircraft, though a path towards minitiarisation has already begun that could eventually see one fit in a smartphone (Imperial College London)

The device represents the UK's first commercially viable quantum accelerometer, which is a far more advanced version of the sorts of accelerometers that currently exist in today's mobile phones and laptops.

The idea of using accelerometers for navigating is not a new one – as they measure how quickly the speed of an object is changing in time – though until now accelerometers have not been accurate enough to match other technologies like GPS.

The quantum accelerometer relies on the precision and accuracy made possible by measuring properties of super-cool atoms, which means any loss in accuracy is "immeasurably small".

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.”

Satellite navigation systems are vulnerable to spoofing attacks or signal blockages (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Handout via REUTERS)

Real-world applications for the device could first be seen in the shipping industry, as it offers a solution to some of the issues presented by GPS navigation.

"We need new types of navigation because at the moment the world relies very heavily on the global network of satellites to tell everybody where they are," said Professor Ed Hinds, director of the Centre for Cold Matter at Imperial College London.

"It's actually rather easy for that system to be emulated and in fact it's been estimated that the UK alone stands to lose about a billion pounds a day if the satellite navigation system were denied."

GPS emulation – or signal spoofing – can also put cargo ships at risk to piracy, Dr Malcolm said, with pirates known to spoof signals in order to lure high-value cargos to dangerous areas.

"This is just the start of the journey for quantum navigation," he said. "Scientists like Heisenberg and Einstein described these quantum ideas in their theories, but it's taken until now to actually physically make them a reality. 

"The step forward this kind of technology offers is unbelievable. First there was analogue, then digital – the next great leap is quantum."

Comments

Share your thoughts and debate the big issues

Learn more
Please be respectful when making a comment and adhere to our Community Guidelines.
  • You may not agree with our views, or other users’, but please respond to them respectfully
  • Swearing, personal abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia and other discriminatory or inciteful language is not acceptable
  • Do not impersonate other users or reveal private information about third parties
  • We reserve the right to delete inappropriate posts and ban offending users without notification

You can find our Community Guidelines in full here.

  • Newest first
  • Oldest first
  • Most liked
  • Least liked
Loading comments...
Please be respectful when making a comment and adhere to our Community Guidelines.

Community Guidelines

  • You may not agree with our views, or other users’, but please respond to them respectfully
  • Swearing, personal abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia and other discriminatory or inciteful language is not acceptable
  • Do not impersonate other users or reveal private information about third parties
  • We reserve the right to delete inappropriate posts and ban offending users without notification

You can find our Community Guidelines in full here.

  • Newest first
  • Oldest first
  • Most liked
  • Least liked
Loading comments...