The UK reveals it's spending millions on quantum navigation

First commercial flight trials of a quantum-based system that could be a backup for GPS

The UK has just completed commercial flight trials of quantum-based navigation systems that are designed to be immune to conventional jamming and spoofing.

Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) systems rely on precision timekeeping. The theory goes that by stirring quantum technology into the mix – in this case, ultracold atoms cooled to near absolute zero – the system could be used as an alternative to Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) or the Global Positioning System (GPS) for location, navigation, and timing data.

Two quantum technologies, the Tiqker optical atomic clock and core elements of a quantum inertial sensor, took to the air aboard QinetiQ's RJ100 Airborne Technology Demonstrator.

The hope is that the technology will form part of a Quantum Inertial Navigation System (Q-INS) that is resistant to jamming and spoofing by hostile actors.

The UK and many other countries rely on GNSS/GPS, a situation that creates a single point of failure. While several satellite constellations provide navigation services, such as Europe's Galileo or the US GPS, disruption could cause issues for defense and economic activities. Hence, a need to develop something that could reduce that reliance.

Roger McKinlay, Challenge Director Quantum Technologies at Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), said: "Modern infrastructure is increasingly dependent on highly accurate timing and navigation derived from satellite signals.

"These flight tests mark the culmination of two excellent projects, funded through UKRI, which Infleqtion has had the vision to create and the deftness in leadership to execute with an outstanding team of collaborators."

Infleqtion is Tiqker's maker, a quantum specialist with products specializing in timing, sensing, and navigation, as well as software aimed at quantum computers. The company describes its Tiqker as a "Next-Generation Atomic Frequency Reference."

The UK government has backed the project with £8 million ($10 million), and the hope is that by 2030, the system will be deployed on aircraft to add resilience and accuracy independent of satellite signals.

Other members of the consortium working alongside Infleqtion and QinetiQ include BAE systems.

Henry White, Sensing Technology Lead at BAE Systems, said: "These trials are an important step forward in developing quantum technology that could ultimately offer a significant military advantage."

While impressive, the idea of using quantum technology to liberate users from reliance on GPS is hardly new. A team from London's Imperial College unveiled a prototype quantum "compass" in 2018. A quantum sensor built at the college was also tested in collaboration with the Royal Navy in 2023.

UK Science Minister Andrew Griffith said, "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.

"The fact that this technology has flown for the first time in British skies, is further proof of the UK as one of the world leaders on quantum." ®

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