Undisturbed navigation technology gets first airborne test

Undisturbed navigation technology gets first airborne test

A UK aircraft has tested ground-breaking quantum technology that could pave the way for unobstructed backups for GPS navigation systems.

The government, which helped fund the research, said it was the first publicly recognized test of its kind.

While GPS is satellite-based, the new system is quantum-based – a term used to describe technology that relies on the properties of matter on a very small scale.

Science Minister Andrew Griffith said the test flight was “further evidence of the UK as one of the world leaders in quantum”.

GPS is a very important system, used on airplanes and road vehicles and by the military, and helps your smartphone determine your location.

But signals from GPS satellites can be jammed, or “spoofed” to provide misleading location data.

In March, an RAF plane carrying UK Defense Secretary Grant Shapps experienced jammed GPS signals while flying close to Russian territory.

Finnish airline Finnair was also forced to suspend daily flights to Estonia’s second-largest city, Tartu, for a month after two of its planes suffered GPS glitches.

Experts accuse Russia of causing disruptions to satellite navigation systems that affected thousands of civilian flights.

Many military technologies, including drones and missiles, use GPS.

But GPS jamming can also be done on a small scale, for example by people driving vehicles that their employers have installed with GPS trackers.

GPS relies on receiving signals from space, but GPS satellites don’t put out more power than car headlights, meaning they can easily jam, experts say.

The new system uses a bunch of atoms, cooled to -273C, about as cold as possible. Because they are carried on board the aircraft itself, they cannot be tampered with by spoofing or jamming.

The purpose is to use these atoms to measure the direction the plane is pointing and its acceleration.

All of those combinations can be used to determine where the aircraft is with a high degree of accuracy.

It is called a quantum system because that is the scientific name for very small particles.

Individual atoms are mind-bogglingly small – a hair is about a million atoms wide – and working on this scale is quite difficult on the ground.

The flight showed that these atoms could be used in the very confined, and generally challenging, environment of an aircraft.

According to the government, this is the first test of this type of technology in the UK on an aircraft in flight, and “the first flight of its kind anywhere in the world that has been publicly acknowledged”.

The trial, which ended earlier this month, involved quantum technology firm Infleqtion, in collaboration with aerospace companies BAE Systems and QinetiQ.

But currently, despite the small scale of quantum technology, the equipment itself is huge. Henry White, part of the team from BAE Systems working on the project, said for that reason he thought the first application could be on board, “where there is more space”.

However, he told the BBC that in five to ten years it could be the size of a shoebox, and a thousand times more accurate than comparable systems.

There are concerns about transmission vulnerability to attacks on satellite navigation.

Mr. White sees this system primarily as a backup to GPS.

“You’re not going to get rid of your satellite system, it’s very simple,” he said.

Signals from GPS satellites can also be used as a very accurate way to tell the time. The test flight also took a quantum clock on board to see if it could serve as a backup if the GPS was blocked. In the lab, Mr White said the best quantum clocks could be very precise.

“If you started them at the beginning of the universe, they might be missing a second by now,” he said.

Mr White believes the test is a “major achievement” but admits it will take time before the technology is actively used.

Ken Munro of Pen Test Partners, a cyber security firm working in aviation, said the test was a “big step in the right direction”, but added “it’s still 10 to 20 years before we see any practical implementation”, in commercial aviation in the UK.

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