A new quantum compass that could replace GPS on ships has been tested on water for the first time, The Telegraph can reveal.
Inside an old shipping container onboard XV Patrick Blackett, the Royal Navy’s experimental ship, could be the future of navigation.
Military chiefs have been warning for years of the dangers of relying on GPS, due to the potential for adversaries to jam and manipulate trackers.
In an interview with The Telegraph last year, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the head of the Armed Forces, warned Russia could wage war in space against the West.
He said: “Russia could also attack the GPS systems which play a key role, both military and civilian, throughout the world,” he said. He added that attacking a nation’s GPS was attractive to an adversary because it involves “neither direct casualties nor an attack on another country’s territory,” and is therefore less likely to provoke a direct Western military response.
The quantum accelerometer
However, satellites are relied on in every aspect of human life, from civilian services such as sat-navs used in cars and phones to warships, with experts warning that just one day without access to the satellites would cost the UK £1 billion.
Now, scientists at Imperial College London appear to have solved the problem.
Named after Patrick Blackett, a Royal Navy veteran and Nobel Prize-winning British physicist, academics have been using the ship as an experimental platform to explore the quantum accelerometer, the UK’s first commercially viable quantum navigation system.
According to Imperial College London, accelerometers work by measuring how an object’s speed changes over time. It uses this velocity and the object’s starting point to calculate the new position. The concept was developed in a laboratory and now for the first time has been tested on water. In order to get the precision for long periods of time, the device measures the properties of supercool atoms.
The results, according to Cmdr. Michael Hutchinson, captain of the vessel, are good.
“This device is a self-contained precision navigation instrument and has never been to sea on a naval ship before,” he said.
“This is its first encounter in water, which is an inhospitable environment due to weather and salt water. However, it’s working well and displaying good results.”
‘Different spheres of warfare’
Speaking on board XV Patrick Blackett as she docked in London – the first time she has been anywhere outside Portsmouth since she started working in June last year- Cmdr Hutchinson said the science was important because “it is testing different spheres of warfare”.
Painted black to stand out from the rest of the fleet, at 42 metres with a crew of five people, XV Patrick Blackett was previously used for the oil and gas market. However, it has been repurposed for trials and, as Cmdr Hutchinson explained, it has a significant amount of automation built into it, “which is why it can go to sea with so few people”.
In the near future, it is hoped the vessel will achieve full automation so that it can drive itself. This is desirable in war fighting situations, where a self driving vessel can be put on a threat and gather intelligence mission without putting people in danger. He stressed such trials were important so as to explore and find “back ups to GPS”. “GPS can be denied and degraded, as we’ve seen with GPS jamming,” he said.
“This could be an answer to that.”