UK completes world’s first flights for quantum navigation that could replace GPS

The 'un-jammable' tech has been put through its paces at the MoD's facilities in Wiltshire

UK completes world’s first flights for quantum navigation that could replace GPS Image by: QinetiQ

A British consortium with funding from the UK government has successfully tested what it calls “un-jammable” quantum navigation tech in flight. 

Geopolitical tensions and warfare have introduced GPS jamming as a means of messing with enemy communication and navigation. This can cause disturbances for both military and civilian transportation and location services

The quantum-based navigation system is called Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT). Its developers are quantum technology firm Infleqtion’s UK subsidiary in collaboration with aerospace company BAE Systems and defence tech contractor QinetiQ, among others. 

The tech in question consists of Infleqtion’s Tiqker optical atomic clock, as well as a tightly confined ultra-cold-atom-based quantum system. 

An optical atomic clock uses the frequency of light emitted or absorbed by atoms as they change energy levels in order to measure time with incredible precision. Meanwhile, ultra-cold quantum systems can calculate position based on measurements of inertial forces acting on atoms held in quantum superposition states

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Developing a Quantum Inertial Navigation System

Optical atomic clocks provide the timing needed for high accuracy and reliability, while quantum positioning systems offer independent verification of position and motion. 

Together with quantum accelerometers and gyroscopes, they can form part of a Quantum Inertial Navigation System (Q-INS), which can offer an alternative to GPS. The system functions independently of external navigation input from satellites, which means that Q-INS would be naturally resistant to jamming and other forms of electronic interference.

Beyond aviation, Q-INS would be beneficial for submarines where GPS cannot reach, for navigation in space, and for self-driving vehicles in areas where GPS is unreliable.

In-flight trials of the tech were completed last week at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) military aircraft testing facilities in Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, on board QinetiQ’s modified RJ100 Airborne Technology Demonstrator. 

“From passenger flights to shipping, we all depend on navigation systems that are accurate, safe, and secure. The scientific research we are supporting here on quantum technology could well provide the resilience to protect our interests,” said Science Minister Andrew Griffith, who was on the final test flight which took place on Thursday, May 9. 

Foundation for next-gen combat air systems

The nearly £8mn for the project, which seeks to reduce the country’s dependency on GNSS/GPS for location, navigation and timing data, came from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). It forms part of Mission 4 of the UK’s National Quantum Strategy, which by 2030 aims to deploy quantum navigation systems on aircraft in order to boost strategic resilience.

However, its potential stretches beyond reducing vulnerability to attack from malevolent actors. In the words of Henry White, Sensing Technology Lead at BAE Systems, this kind of quantum technology could “ultimately offer a significant military advantage. Knowing reliably and precisely when and where any asset and sensor system are, feeds into additional options for platform design and capability.” 

This, White added, could play a big role in the development of next-generation combat air systems.

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