British researchers at the Imperial College in London and quantum technology specialist M Squared have come up with a new way to figure out where in the world you are.
Their so-called quantum compass measures the movements of supercooled atoms using a quantum accelerometer which, unlike previous accelerometers, remains accurate over time and doesn’t require external references. Built over five years with $346 million (£270m) funding from the U.K. government, you probably won’t find the three-foot wide, three-foot tall compass under the Christmas tree or in your smartphone any time soon, but it has the potential to dramatically change how we navigate the world. Here’s how:
It’s ultra secure
Unlike GPS and other methods of navigation that rely on a global navigation satellite system (GNSS), the quantum compass doesn’t rely on any external reference. That makes the device much more tamper-proof than current navigation technology. GPS, for instance, can be hacked or spoofed with major implications for both military and commercial navigation. Since the quantum compass is completely self-contained, it’s not vulnerable to such attacks.
But it’s not only malicious threats the compass protects against. It’ll also keep working if, for whatever reason, we can’t make contact with our satellites.
It’s incredibly accurate
Consumer GPS like the one in your phone is accurate to about 15 feet. Military-grade GPS is accurate to within a few centimeters. But even that level of accuracy can be easily interrupted by something as simple as a tall building. The quantum compass is able to measure even minute changes very accurately.
It’s surprisingly cost-effective
It’s counter-intuitive to say that a compass that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build was a bargain, but that is in fact the case when you consider that a single day without access to satellites would cost the U.K. nearly $1.3 billion (£1 billion). With Brexit on the horizon and uncertainty surrounding the U.K.’s access to the E.U.’s Galileo system, costs for such a hypothetical regarding satellite access may be looking a bit more real.