Royal Navy navigation system test
Royal Navy tests a sabotage-free GPS-less navigation system. Royal Navy

In a major development, the Royal Navy has ventured into the next-generation navigation system which goes beyond the Global Positioning System or GPS.

During one of its ship trials, the Royal Navy tested a prototype quantum sensor. The sensors were tested onboard XV Patrick Blackett. The Imperial College of London built this new cutting-edge navigation system.

Why is it important?

What sets apart this new navigation system is its ability to bypass any acts of sabotage like imitation, jamming etc which satellite-based navigation systems are prone to. These sensors are capable of manoeuvring without the assistance of the Global Positioning System, making them less susceptible to snooping and attacks, which is good for the security of the UK.

At present, loss of satellite signal for a single day costs a £1 billion loss for the UK, says an Imperial College briefing on this matter. With this new navigation system that could be prevented.

While the system is in its early stage it shows a world promise. The GPS-free navigation system is built by the joint association of the Royal Navy's Technology and Experimentation experts at NavyX and scientists at the Imperial College of London. This navigation system is considered to be a big step forward by the Royal Navy.

How does it work?

The new navigation system is a quantum sensor that can gauge an object's speed change over time. It is a unique accelerometer that can sense changes in speed and align accordingly. This is quite different from existing navigation systems that use GPS signals from satellites to align themselves.

When these speed change measurements are combined with the rotational measurements of objects and their initial position, you can calculate the exact location of the said object.

Accelerators are generally used in many modern devices like laptops and mobile phones but their sensors aren't that accurate for long without the help of an external reference. This is where this new quantum sensor accelerator differs. The accelerator developed by the Imperial College team is powered by ultracold atoms which help in making the accurate measurements

These atoms can readily transform into wave particles when cooked down to shallow temperatures and when they travel through the sensor they create an optical ruler. This laser pulse-generated optical ruler helps to measure the atom's acceleration.

The first step towards a quantum navigation system

The Commanding Officer of the Royal Navy Ship XV Patrick Blackett, Michael Hutchinson reiterated this when he revealed that the testing was fruitful and the development of the fully functional system is in the initial stages. He highlighted how exciting it was to work on this and what an incredible opportunity it is for the Royal Navy.

Working with Imperial College London on this project has been an exciting and interesting opportunity for all of us. So far, the testing has gone well but the technology is still in its very early stages. It's great to be a part of Royal Navy history.
Commander Michael Hutchinson, Commanding Officer, XV Patrick Blackett, Royal Navy.

Speaking regarding the matter, a leading scientist from Imperial College, Physics department, Dr Joseph Cotter revealed how crucial it was to use quantum sensors outside the boundaries of the lab into the real world.

Access to the Patrick Blackett provides us with a unique opportunity to take quantum sensors out of the lab and into the real-world environments, where they are needed.
Dr Joseph Cotter, Quantum Sensor Scientist, Imperial College.

The Navy's Persistent Deployment System or PODS had the sensors installed in them. The PODS are developed by Qinetiq and they are interchangeable shipping containers used in different kinds of ships that provide the much-needed extra space for testing new technology.

This is the first time such an experiment has been conducted to understand the utility of quantum sensors in the navigation system. It's the first step towards a quantum-enabled navigation system that can be used in areas with little to no satellite coverage.

In 2018, the Imperial College team first revealed their first quantum prototype which they frequently upgraded. The team reiterated why this system was crucial as it prevents drifting over time which makes such satellite-free navigation inaccurate in the long run as they need to be calibrated regularly. In the case of quantum sensors, such regular calibrations aren't needed.