Scottish company demonstrates system that could replace GPS navigation

The UK’s first quantum accelerometer for navigation has been demonstrated by a team from Glasgow-based M Squared and Imperial College London.

Most navigation today relies on a global navigation satellite system, such as GPS, which sends and receives signals from satellites orbiting the Earth. The quantum accelerometer is self-contained and does not rely on any external signals.

The team unveiled the standalone, transportable device today at the National Quantum Technologies Showcase, an event demonstrating the technological progress arising from the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme – a £270m UK Government investment over five years.

Accelerometers measure how an object’s velocity changes over time. With this, and the starting point of the object, the new position can be calculated. They have existed for some time, and are present today in technologies like mobile phones and laptops. However, these devices cannot maintain their accuracy over longer periods without an external reference.

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.

As part of M Squared’s work in commercialising cold atom quantum sensors, it developed a universal laser system which it had implemented in its quantum gravimeter. The laser is now also used in the quantum accelerometer, built in collaboration with Imperial. It works by cooling atoms and measuring their changing wave properties which are in turn affected by acceleration.

Dr Graeme Malcolm, founder and chief executive of M Squared, said: “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.”

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.”