Saturday, May 25, 2024

Un-jammable quantum navigation tech takes flight in the UK

Britain has achieved a significant milestone by conducting a series of test flights to showcase the key technologies of a groundbreaking quantum navigation system. This system aims to combat the serious, albeit often overlooked, threat of GPS jamming and spoofing in transportation.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have become so much a part of our lives with so many applications that it’s easy to take them for granted – that is until you drive into a steep mountain valley or densely wooded forest and completely lose your satellite signal. That can be more than a little unnerving as the fuel gauge hovers around empty, and you have no idea where the next gas station is.

The threat to ships and aircraft from GPS signal disruptions is a serious concern. Not only do they face the risk of accidental signal outages, but they are also vulnerable to deliberate jamming and spoofing. 

Jamming involves overpowering the GPS signal with a strong transmission while spoofing entails sending false signals to deceive GPS devices into believing they are in a different location. These threats are not just theoretical; in 2022 alone, over 49,000 civilian aircraft fell victim to spoofing, often in conflict zones where spoofing is used to misdirect enemy planes and drones. This is a widespread and significant issue that demands attention and action.

Once a spoofing attack occurs, the crew members become distracted and lose situational awareness, leading to a significantly heavier workload as they manage the emergency. It’s important to note that spoofing doesn’t just confuse the aircraft crew, but it can also impact air traffic controllers who rely on the aircraft’s transponder, which now provides incorrect information. 

Additionally, the electronic flight bag used by pilots may become corrupted, leading to a lack of trust in its calculations for critical factors such as remaining fuel. Furthermore, the plane’s course, speed, and altitude may be inaccurately displayed, and the aircraft could even disappear from automatic tracking systems, increasing the risk of a fatal accident. 

Spoofing also has the potential to compromise takeoffs, collision alarms, and digital compasses, while causing autopilots to disengage.

To enhance navigational reliability, incorporating a backup system such as an inertial guidance system is crucial. Comparable to dead reckoning, this electronic system utilizes gyrocompasses and accelerometers to automatically compute the vessel’s course and position based on its movements along all three axes. 

While it is highly beneficial when initiated with an accurate navigational fix, its effectiveness diminishes over time due to accumulating errors. To counteract this, submarines periodically resurface to obtain fresh GPS positions and maintain precision.

The speed of aircraft surpasses that of submarines, causing errors to accumulate more rapidly. To address this challenge, British partners Infleqtion, BAE Systems, QinetiQ, and UK Research and Innovation are collaborating to develop an advanced version of dead reckoning using quantum mechanics.

Quantum navigation systems rely on quantum sensing, which involves precisely tracking the movements of a single atom under cryogenic conditions, leveraging the unique properties of quantum mechanics such as quantum entanglement, quantum interference, and quantum state squeezing. When combined with atomic clocks and specialized software analysis to eliminate interference, these systems can serve as reliable alternatives to GPS for extended periods.

The British government is placing hope in the new quantum-based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) systems to enhance protection for commercial flights against spoofing. 

Recent tests conducted at the Ministry of Defence facility at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire showcased two quantum technologies: a compact Tiqker optical atomic clock and a tightly confined ultra-cold-atom-based quantum system. These technologies were installed on QinetiQ’s RJ100 Airborne Technology Demonstrator aircraft, which has been equipped with a fighter plane nose. The PNT is set to be integrated into a comprehensive Quantum Inertial Navigation System (Q-INS).

“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,” Science Minister Andrew Griffith said. “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.”