Scientists from the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and UK National Physical Laboratory (NPL) are in the process of developing a novel navigation system for submarines, known as quantum positioning, which could be 1000 times more accurate than current systems. The prototype is expected to be trialed on land in 2015 and, if successful, the team hope that it could eventually be commercialized and used in the civilian world.
Submarines rely on accelerometers for navigation after they submerge since GPS doesn’t work underwater. Accelerometers are devices that measure the force of acceleration. They’re surprisingly common; the rotation of your smart phone screen with your movement is down to this technology.
Although they're widely used, unfortunately these navigation systems can be inaccurate in vessels. “Today, if a submarine goes a day without a GPS fix we’ll have a navigation drift of the order of a kilometer when it surfaces,” DSTL’s Neil Stansfield told New Scientist. “A quantum accelerometer will reduce that to just 1 meter.”
This “quantum compass” is based on a Nobel-prizewinning discovery which described how lasers can trap and cool a cloud of atoms to just above absolute zero. Once the atoms reach this temperature they reach a quantum state that is particularly sensitive to outside forces. By tracking changes in the atoms with a laser, calculations can be made to determine size of the force which corresponds to the movements of the submarine.
This new technology should also make navigation systems less susceptible to interference. “There is nothing in physics that could be used- given the knowledge we have now- to disrupt one of these [new] devices,” Bob Cockshott of the NPL told the Financial Times.
Although there is still some tweaking to be done, the team hope to eventually be able to shrink the device for use in other applications. According to John Powis, former navigator on Royal Navy submarines and head of the NATO Submarine Rescue Service in Faslane, this technology could be very useful in warfare. “The submarine does not need to know its position in meters and centimeters, but a projectile like a missile or shell might,” he told New Scientist.
Team leader Stephen Till of DSTL, however, envisages its eventual application in a variety of commercial products such as cars and mobile phones. “We’re convinced the size and power will come down for broad use,” he added.