Experimental navigation system swaps satellites for quantum physics

Emily Price
E. Price|05.15.14

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Experimental navigation system swaps satellites for quantum physics

GPS can be useful when you're trying to navigate to that hot new bar -- as long as your travels don't take you somewhere its signal can't reach. A new so-called quantum positioning system could pick things up when satellites fail, and help guide your way using super-cooled atoms. Aside from better directions, the solution might even make travel safer. While existing accelerometer-based systems can track location underwater within a kilometer, quantum positioning can do it within a meter, making it 1,000 times more accurate. With submarines, that could be the difference between staying safe and drifting into hostile waters.

The device, known as a quantum accelerometer, is actually based on a discovery made in 1997. Back then, scientists realized that when you trap a cloud of atoms in a vacuum with lasers, it can be cooled to just above absolute zero. Fast forward to 2014, and a group of researchers at the UK Defense Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down found the frosty atoms can be easily disturbed by an outside force. When you point another laser in the vacuum, you can track the atoms and determine their location based on the force of their movements. In the case of that submarine we mentioned, the "force" it's tracking is the sub rocking back and forth under the sea. The group will test a prototype of the device, which is about the size of shoebox, on land in a stripped-down form in September of 2015. If those trials are successful, we could eventually see the technology used in future vehicles, planes and even smartphones.

Image source: Getty

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