National Physical Laboratory

Quantum Timing, Navigation and Sensing Showcase at NPL

The 'Quantum Timing, Navigation and Sensing Showcase' at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) on 15 May 2014 aims to accelerate the exploitation of quantum mechanics for highly accurate timekeeping and advanced, GPS-independent navigation within the UK defence sector and wider industry.

NPL's semiconductor chip, tailored for trapping and cooling atoms for quantum research and technology
NPL's semiconductor chip, tailored
for trapping and cooling atoms for
quantum research and technology

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) is presenting a number of research projects at the event to bring to market the science behind the world's most accurate atomic clocks. The projects showcased include the development of the world's first portable optical clock at the University of Birmingham. The suitcase-sized system uses laser light, rather than the microwave radiation utilised in traditional atomic clocks, to offer up to 100 times more precise time-keeping.

There will also be presentations on a table-top atom interferometer to provide ultra-precise, highly reliable positional data for submarines at depth, and the use of hollow core fibre in compact, low-power atomic clocks for use in the telecoms and energy sectors.

The Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Universities and Science Minister, said:

"Among many promising areas, quantum technologies may bring game-changing advantages to future timing, sensing and navigation capabilities that could support multi-billion pound markets in the UK and globally. Much of what will be covered today is at an early stage of development. Scientists need the freedom to explore the most exciting research directions, and we also need to be on the lookout for early commercialisation opportunities.

"Today's event presents an outstanding opportunity to enhance collaboration between industry, academia and government, to provide a springboard for exploitation of the benefits of quantum technologies. I am sure that today's event will stimulate progress, and I look forward to seeing further momentum in this important area."

The exploitation of quantum mechanics that underpins the laws of nature at the smallest length scales has already given the world a wealth of new technologies, including semiconductors, microprocessors, lasers, nuclear energy, thermal imagers and digital cameras. The second 'quantum revolution' in the field of Timing, Navigation and Sensing (TNS) is based around ultra cold atoms cooled with lasers to temperatures a billion times colder than outer space. At their lowest energies the atoms become the coldest known bodies in the universe.

At present, however, the use of ultra cold atoms for quantum TNS technologies is limited to the laboratory and held back from wider adoption by the impractical size and cost of the instruments required. As a result, the projects presented at the showcase are not only focused on pushing past classical physical limits towards optimal performance, but are also investigating miniaturisation procedures and the potential use of new materials to reduce costs and increase their practicality for industry.

Neil Stansfield, Head of Knowledge, Innovation, and Futures Enterprise at Dstl, said:

"The defence industry often acts as a pioneer in the development of new technologies and the potential benefits of a future in which we can navigate by inner space rather than outer space will impact both the military and civilian world. Quantum TNS technologies could bring game-changing advantages to the UK defence sector and support markets measured in £Billions, here in the UK and around the world. Whilst there are some significant obstacles, it's exciting to see how well-placed the UK is on the global stage to address the significant technical and systematic challenges that remain in commercialising quantum technologies and accelerating exploitation."

Bob Cockshott, Positioning, Navigation and Timing expert at NPL, said:

"Whilst the most immediate applications are in the defence field, future Q-Nav technologies could also have significant civilian applications across a wide variety of activities, covering high frequency trading, network synchronisation, robust and ubiquitous navigation, geo-surveying and mineral prospecting. Our hope is that today's showcase will inspire electronics designers and manufacturers across the country to take advantage of the opportunities on offer and establish leading positions for themselves within important future supply chains for the coming decades. As with the technology itself, the timing of today's event is significant. With the first applications potentially ready for market in five years, now is the critical moment time to consider the opportunities provided by quantum."

Press coverage of the Quantum Timing, Navigation and Sensing Showcase has included:

Find out more about NPL's work on Quantum Technologies

View project summaries

For further details, please contact Leon Lobo

Last Updated: 3 Sep 2014
Created: 15 May 2014