back to article Brit boffins build 'quantum compass'... say goodbye to those old GPS gizmos, possibly

British boffins have developed a self-contained and tamper-proof "quantum compass" that doesn't rely on GPS signals to provide a highly accurate measure of where it is in the world. The compass is a quantum accelerometer that is capable of measuring tiny shifts in supercooled atoms and so calculate how far and how fast the …

  1. DJV Silver badge

    Re: Had to be said.

    Damn, you beat me to it! I came here to post something very similar (though it might have mentioned a certain Boris J by name).

  2. Morrie Wyatt

    Re: Had to be said.

    Why?

    What makes you think it's restricted to the UK?

    As I'm not British either, I felt it best to be carefully non-specific.

    Examples:

    https://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/01/28/malawi_legislation/

    https://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/09/19/oz_anticrypto_legislation/

    And just about anything to do with Donald Trump.

    It seems to be endemic to the breed anywhere around the world.

    (I'm an equal opportunity cynic.)

  3. Contrex

    America takes over

    The MOD is the "Ministry of Defense" now?

  4. Korev Silver badge
    Childcatcher

    Re: America takes over

    >The MOD is the "Ministry of Defense" now?

    You have a licence to kill, don't waste it...

  5. jake Silver badge

    Re: America takes over

    No need to be so defensive.

    (This one falls under the "If you have to explain it" banner ...)

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: America takes over

    "licence"

    Beg to differ. Everywhere I go it's license, incense, offense, defense, etc. It all makes "sense" to me (Or does it make "sence" to you?).

  7. Jeffrey Nonken Silver badge

    So it's an inertial tracker that will work on the Discworld, provided you don't need to know your elevation.

  8. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    "So it's an inertial tracker that will work on the Discworld, provided you don't need to know your elevation."

    That explains why it's so big. You need somewhere for the ants to live in the CPU.

  9. arctic_haze Silver badge

    Inertial navigation system

    This is what it is:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inertial_navigation_system

    Maybe it is supposed to be better than the existing ones due to the quantum thing, but for mow it is two orders of magnitude larger than what is commercially available.

  10. jake Silver badge

    Re: Inertial navigation system

    When I mow the larger of the fields, I use bog-standard GPS, on the rare occasion that I don't use my Mk I eyeball, as gawd/ess intended.

  11. David Roberts Silver badge

    Re: Inertial navigation system

    Yes. An inertial navigation system to tell you precisely where you are. Part of that can also tell you which way you are pointing.

    A compass doesn't care where you are it just tells you where North is (for various values of North).

  12. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    It'll still be a damm sight cheaper than the UK launching it's own Nav Sat constellation.

    Which is good.

    Yes it needs to shrink several orders of magnitude.

    Yes it needs to operate in 3 dimensions.

    But it'll still be a damm sight cheaper than the UK launching it's own GPS system, which is basically post Brexit willy waving.

  13. DCFusor Silver badge

    Re: It'll still be a damm sight cheaper than the UK launching it's own Nav Sat constellation.

    No it won't. One set of birds will serve however many users. This needs one per user.

    There is a big number of users....times the cost per each of these.

    The rest, well...I agree with the willy waving part.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: It'll still be a damm sight cheaper than the UK launching it's own Nav Sat constellation.

    "I agree with the willy waving part"

    "Every Prime Minister needs a Willy" said the previous female PM at Westminster.

  15. werdsmith Silver badge

    Re: It'll still be a damm sight cheaper than the UK launching it's own Nav Sat constellation.

    No it won't. One set of birds will serve however many users. This needs one per user.

    You still need at least one receiver per user.

  16. Obesrver1

    it a start

    and it will work on other planets & maybe in space & higher gravity.

    Noted above: It is a part of a system not the full system that would need to maintain a starting point reference, & by adding extra planes for 3 dimensions X,Y,Z of movement & would provide rotational measurement functionality.

    A great beginning !

  17. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Linux

    An Achillies heel?

    What are the power requirements? Also I'm assuming that even a brief interruption would be pretty dire.

    Hmmm, don't suppose it uses Linux for control.

  18. jaduncan

    Re: An Achillies heel?

    This kind of thing is literally what RTOSes are made for.

  19. SkippyBing Silver badge

    Re: An Achillies heel?

    'Also I'm assuming that even a brief interruption would be pretty dire.'

    As long as it stores where it was when the interruption happened it shouldn't be too bad depending on how fast you're going. You could just reinitialise it at you're last known position, you'd then have a circle of error based on how far you could have gone in the time you didn't know where you were.

  20. Rich 11 Silver badge

    Acceleration

    As the atoms move, their wave properties are affected by the acceleration of the vehicle. The optical ruler can measure these minute changes very accurately and then with a few relatively simple equations it is possible to figure out exactly where you are.

    Great stuff. I suppose that if you know where you already are then you can determine your angular acceleration with regard to the centre of the Earth and your overall acceleration with regard to that of the Earth around the Sun. Obviously I can see that one might be overwhelmed by the other, but it'd be nice to know for certain how this factors out in a fortnight's time.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    From the article:

    >A phone's GPS accurate to roughly 15 feet, although military GPS devices can be accurate to centimeters.

    Can we please drop these gross misunderstandings? Please? Or is this par for the course when the word boffins is being thrown around? It is not as if these mistakes have not been pointed out earlier.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    quantum quantum quantum quantum

    It can also find Deepak Chopra under a 100 metres of lead!

  23. jake Silver badge

    Re: quantum quantum quantum quantum

    I'd pay good money to watch that happen.

  24. Emdeha

    Nice cable ties there on your helmholtz coils... would be a shame if something happened to them...

    like slipping, vibrating or slacking due to thermal variations. Guess we won't get anything better than maybe +- 2% accuracy like this ? =( ;^P)

    About that 'compass' comparison: Velocity has magnitude and orientation, and is defined as length by time - therefore if (and only if) those accelerometers are reeeally precise, getting a compass-like direction out of a relative position change measurement is a mere subtraction and division away. Zero problemo.

    Trying that calculation with our everyday axe-celery-metres of a jesus-phone would leave one spinning erratically, hence the additional gryo-accelerometers in our phones.

    Since we can just buy a (quantum interference, so there !) laser gyro compass, the compass part of that thing is moot anyhow - And as long as said boffins don't get better linear accelerometry than, say, a contemporary gravimeter, said gps part goes down the drain, too.

    Just my arrogant (yeah, I studied physics, sorry) 2 cents 'bout that contraption.

  25. MiguelC Silver badge

    One plane gives you 2-dimensional positioning

    When they manage 3 planes will they get 4-dimensional positioning? Awesome!

  26. Malcolm Boura

    They will give it to the yanks for a bad trade deal and sell it to China.

  27. Simon B-52

    "Useful for things like autonomous cars"

    Do you actually believe that, for even a fraction of a second?

    This is boilerplate BS, tacked onto the end of most "defence" tech announcements to foster the illusion that it will have some use other than killing us all faster.

    Also, please consider the actual meaning of the word autonomous. An autonomous car is unlikely to ever be useful to people.

  28. This post has been deleted by its author

  29. Milton Silver badge

    Physics and engineering are not the author's speciality, are they?

    It isn't a compass. It's a new method for implementing the venerable concept of an inertial guidance system, which is itself simply a technological form of dead reckoning practised since the first manned boat got lost in poor visibility 11,174 years ago.

    Inertial navigation systems are still very important to submarines (such as boomers, spending long periods under water and unable to receive GPS) and I might guess that they would be the first operational priority for this new tech, given that its early-version mass and size won't be prohibitve in a sub, compared with a missile or an aircraft.

    It will be extremely interesting to see how the noise problem will be managed. With mechanical weaknesses such as friction removed (it is a core problem of current INS tech), the sensitivity of the new system is both advantage and disadvantage. There will need to be some clever design in dealing with local mascons, determining honest-vs-deceitful frames of reference, multi-axis rotation and relativistic effects—the latter cease to be ignorable when you're finely analysing the performance of kit which may accelerate at 100g, moving in three spatial dimensions, potentially rotating around one or all of those as well, and reaching speeds in the miles per second range¹.

    It'll be even more interesting to see what kinds of countermeasures might work against such a system. I'm guessing local EMP would banjax it thoroughly, as would an x-ray laser, not to mention finely tuned peppering by minute chunks of high-velocity debris (strikes by waves of microgram particles timed to arrive in a sequence to ensure destructive interference). That said, if you can shoot close enough to achieve that, you're probably close enough for a kinetic kill anyway ...

    ¹ Consider that even the 1960s Sprint ABM had incredible performance at this level, and furthermore that a rapidly spinning missile is one obvious countermeasure against laser strikes.)

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Love the Brexit snipe!

    But by the time this technology becomes, I'm not sure the UK will have a navy to use it on...

  31. eionmac

    Ah demonstation just in time. Norway / Finlands GPS knocked out by A.N. Other

    Just in time.Aircraft in Norway / Finland had GPS knocked out last week by an intruder, so military sexercise and all civilian aircraft had to navigate independent of GPS. probably absolutely necessary for nuclear subs, which have a very accurate known starting point

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Ah demonstation just in time. Norway / Finlands GPS knocked out by A.N. Other

    > had to navigate independent of GPS

    Most Norwegian should know how to navigate by the sun or by the stars, use map and compass, sailing a ship by light houses at night (the crew at Helge Ingstad was probably drunk) or use any of the numerous ways of navigating between sails first were hoisted and the introduction of GPS.

    Finland and Norway has national service where you would learn these things if you didn't know how beforehand.

  33. onefang
    Paris Hilton

    Re: Ah demonstation just in time. Norway / Finlands GPS knocked out by A.N. Other

    "Just in time.Aircraft in Norway / Finland had GPS knocked out last week by an intruder, so military sexercise"

    That sounds like a very fun military they have in Norway / Finland.

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Ah demonstation just in time. Norway / Finlands GPS knocked out by A.N. Other

    But isn't the North Sea notoriously stormy, meaning celestial AND terrestrial visibility was bad, your ship would regularly be tossed around off course, AND there's the risk of a lightning bolt throwing off your compass?

  35. SkippyBing Silver badge

    Re: Ah demonstation just in time. Norway / Finlands GPS knocked out by A.N. Other

    'But isn't the North Sea notoriously stormy, meaning celestial AND terrestrial visibility was bad, your ship would regularly be tossed around off course, AND there's the risk of a lightning bolt throwing off your compass?'

    Presumably why no one went anywhere by boat until the invention of GPS...

  36. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Ah demonstation just in time. Norway / Finlands GPS knocked out by A.N. Other

    "Presumably why no one went anywhere by boat until the invention of GPS..."

    OR...presumably why there were lots of errors and shipwrecks until one had a better idea of one's location in such tempestuous waters...

  37. SkippyBing Silver badge

    Re: Ah demonstation just in time. Norway / Finlands GPS knocked out by A.N. Other

    'OR...presumably why there were lots of errors and shipwrecks until one had a better idea of one's location in such tempestuous waters...'

    Yeah, that was pretty much cracked pre-GPS though, if you're out of sight of land you don't need GPS level accuracy and if you're in sight of land visual fixing is more than good enough.

  38. jake Silver badge

    Re: Ah demonstation just in time. Norway / Finlands GPS knocked out by A.N. Other

    For example, humans had no difficulties moving from one speck of an island to another in the Pacific long before even magnetic compasses made it to that part of the world. See Polynesian navigation in your encyclopedia of choice.

  39. Andrew Dancy

    eLORAN?

    I recall reading a few months ago there had been a UK Gov report into the vulnerabilities of GPS (it's not just navigation - GPS timing signals are used for all sorts of scary things like synchronising electrical grid frequencies and regulating frequency slicing on the mobile phone networks). The conclusion was that jamming or solar events leading to a loss of GPS would have potentially catastrophic effects on modern life.

    They suggested a number of solutions, one of which was eLORAN . Basically an update of the old LORAN navigation network used until the mid 90s it would provide both location and timing (whilst many other GPS alternatives only do one or the other) whilst being virtually impossible to jam due to the much lower frequencies used. Unfortunately a trial a few years ago was kyboshed when other European countries turned off their transmitters (rumour has it there was pressure from the Commission not to support tech which could rival Galileo), so there's currently only one transmitter running (enough to support timing but not location, which needs multiple transmitters).

    Setting up a chain of eLORAN transmitters would have the same utility as a British GPS system and would be considerably cheaper!

  40. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: eLORAN?

    Wow! I got all the way to the bottom of page three of the comments before an eLORAN proponent hove over the horizon.

  41. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Will it be ready by March 2019

    When we lose access to GPS?

  42. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    Bad news is the subspace quantum nuclear magnetic flux buggers up mechanical *and* digital watches, so while you might know exactly where you are, you won't ever be able to calculate your average speed over the orienteering course.

    I had a pedometer once. I switched it on and walked twelve miles. I checked the output on the device while celebrating in the pub and it correctly showed I had two feet.

  43. Charles 9 Silver badge

    Re: Bah!

    How would the pedometer know you had two feet? You could have three legs for all it knows.

  44. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Cool lasers in there..

    (That's my coat over there, the one by the angry mob. Can you fetch it for me?)

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