Quantum Navigational Tech Takes Flight in New Trial

Bose-Einstein condensates could lead to a more precise GPS alternative

4 min read

Margo Anderson is senior associate editor and telecommunications editor at IEEE Spectrum.

a small plane sitting on tarmac with door open and ladder hanging out

In May, a British Aerospace 146 aircraft tested new navigational tech that could provide an alternative to GPS when the latter's signal is weak or jammed.


A short-haul aircraft in the United Kingdom recently became the first airborne platform to test delicate quantum technologies that could usher in a post-GPS world—in which satellite-based navigation (be it GPS, BeiDou, Galileo, or others) cedes its singular place as a trusted navigational tool. The question now is how soon will it take for this quantum tomorrow to actually arrive.

But is this tech just around the corner, as its proponents suggest? Or will the world need to wait until the 2030s or beyond, as skeptics maintain. Whenever the technology can scale up, potential civilian applications will be substantial.

“The very first application or very valuable application is going to be autonomous shipping,” says Max Perez, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Boulder, Colo.–based company Infleqtion. “As we get these systems down smaller, they’re going to start to be able to address other areas like autonomous mining, for example, and other industrial settings where GPS might be degraded. And then, ultimately, the largest application will be generalized, personal autonomous vehicles—whether terrestrial or air-based.”

The big idea Infleqtion and its U.K. partners are testing is whether the extreme sensitivity that quantum sensors can provide is worth the trade-off of all the expensive kit needed to miniaturize such tech so it can fit on a plane, boat, spacecraft, car, truck, or train.

Turning Bose-Einstein Condensates Into Navigational Tools

At the core of Infleqtion’s technology is a state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), which can be made to be extremely sensitive to acceleration. And in the absence of an external GPS signal, an aircraft that can keep a close tally on its every rotation and acceleration is an aircraft that can infer its exact location relative to its last known position.

As Perez describes it—the company has not yet published a paper on its latest, landmark accomplishment—Infleqtion’s somewhat-portable BEC device occupies 8 to 10 rack units of space. (One rack unit represents a standard server rack’s width of 48.3 centimeters and a standard server rack depth of 60–100 cm.)

person with headset on looking at computer screens and clipboard at handsScientists tested delicate Bose-Einstein condensates in their instruments, which could one day undergird ultrasensitive accelerometers.Qinetiq

In May, the company flew its rig aboard a British Aerospace 146 (BAe 146/Avro RJ100) tech demonstrator aircraft. Inside the rig, a set of lasers blasted a small, supercooled cloud of rubidium atoms to establish a single quantum state among the atoms. The upshot of this cold atom trap is to create ultrasensitive quantum conditions among the whole aggregation of atoms, which is then a big enough cloud of matter to be able to be manipulated with standard laboratory equipment.

Using the quantum wave-particle duality, in which matter behaves both like tiny billiard balls and wave packets, engineers can then use lasers and magnetic fields to split the BEC cloud into two or more coherent matter-wave packets. When later recombined, the interference patterns of the multiple wave packets are studied to discover even the most minuscule accelerations—tinier than conventional accelerometers could measure—to the wave packets’ positions in three-dimensional space.

That’s the theoretical idea, at least.

Real-World Conditions Muddy Timetables

In practice, any BEC-based accelerometer would need to at least match the sensitivity of existing, conventional accelerometer technologies.

“The best inertial systems in the world, based on ring laser gyroscopes, or fiber-optic gyroscopes, can...maintain a nautical mile of precision over about two weeks of mission,” Perez says. “That’s the standard.”

The Infleqtion rig has provided only a proof of principle for creating a manipulable BEC state in a rubidium cloud, Perez adds, so there’s no one-to-one comparison yet available for the quantum accelerometer technology. That said, he expects Infleqtion to be able to either maintain the same nautical-mile precision over a month or more mission time—or, conversely, increase the sensitivity over a week’s mission to something like one-tenth of a nautical mile.

The eventual application space for the technology is vast, says Doug Finke, chief content officer at the New York City–based market research firm Global Quantum Intelligence.

“Quantum navigation devices could become the killer application for quantum-sensing technology,” Finke says. “However, many challenges remain to reduce the cost, size, and reliability. But potentially, if this technology follows it similar path to what happened in computing, from room-size mainframes to something that fits inside one’s pocket, it could become ubiquitous and possibly even replace GPS later this century.”

The timeframe for such a takeover remains an unanswered question. “It won’t happen immediately due to the engineering challenges still to be resolved,” Finke says. “And the technology may require many more years to reach maturation.”

Dana Goward, president of the Alexandria, Va.–based Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, even ventures a prediction. “It will be 10 to 15 years at least before we see something that is practical for broad application,” he says.

Perez says that by 2026, Infleqtion will be testing the reliability of its actual accelerometer technology—not just setting up a BEC in midflight, as it did in May.“It’s basically trading off getting the technology out there a little faster versus something that is more precise for more demanding applications that’ll be just behind that,” Perez says.

UPDATE 4 June 2024: The story was updated to modify the accuracy estimate for the best inertial navigation systems today—from one nautical mile per one-week mission (as a previous version of this story stated) to one nautical mile per two-week mission.

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