Quantum technology to ensure resilient maritime navigation

12 June 2020

Dr Simon Calcutt from Oxford’s Department of Physics along with Professor Tom Pike from Imperial College London are leading on a new research project to improve the precision of maritime navigation.

The project aims to develop the MEMS component of a hybrid cold atoms MEMS gravity gradiometer and is funded by the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing, led by the University of Birmingham. It will extend the Hub’s map-matching navigation technology to applications in maritime environments.

Establishing a vessel’s precise location

The light and compact hybrid instrument will combine highly sensitive sensors and a gravity gradiometer to allow navigation that will not only rely on satellite signals, but will measure the localised gravity field produced by underground conditions which can be matched to gravity maps to establish a vessel’s precise location.

Receiving stable and accurate location data while at sea is vital, and this has not yet to date been achieved due to satellite vulnerabilities. This crucial need has been underlined in the Maritime 2050 report, compiled by the UK Government’s Department of Transport in 2019, which states: ‘A key problem which must be addressed in navigation safety terms is the overwhelming reliance on Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) with its inherent vulnerabilities to man-made interference and space weather. There are numerous examples of accidents and incidents associated with navigation error.’

Exploiting quantum technology

The team will exploit gravity gradiometer technology developed by Quantum Technology Hub academics, to ensure its effectiveness on a moving platform. Hub academics are already working closely with industry partners, such as Network Rail and the Lighthouse Authority, to implement map-matching navigation, and this project aims to add electronics that are able to compensate for the dynamics of the deployment platform to offer higher frequency capabilities required for resilient maritime navigation.

The sensor instrument is based on the MEMS seismometers previously developed by Professor Pike for the NASA InSight mission, which is currently operating on the surface of Mars, and has a world-leading 0.3 ng/rtHz performance. These seismometers are helping to study the interior of the planet by listening to ‘marsquakes’.

Extreme sensitivity required

Creating an instrument which can detect a gravity signal from a mobile deployment is an incredible challenge. Gravity sensors require extreme sensitivity to be able to detect signals, and a typical maritime, or airborne deployment experiences acceleration of 0.1g or more. The instrument aims to uniquely detect signals at the nano-g level.

Professor Simon Calcutt comments: 'We are looking forward to modifying the 3-axis seismometer system we now have operating on Mars to control the much more complex multi-axis feedback system needed to detect gravitational changes from a moving ship.'

Professor Kai Bongs, Principal Investigator at the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing, said: ‘We are delighted with this opportunity to extend our cold atom quantum technology in map-matching navigation to maritime environments, using MEMS enhanced technology developed by leading electronics expert Dr Simon Calcutt in a project led by Professor Tom Pike. At the Quantum Technology Hub, we are working closely with industry to build quantum technology for map matching navigation in both the maritime and railway sectors.’

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About the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing

The UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing (led by the University of Birmingham) is one of four Hubs within the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, alongside the UK Quantum Technology Hub in Quantum Enhanced Imaging (University of Glasgow); Quantum Computing & Simulation Hub (University of Oxford) and Quantum Communications Hub (University of York).

The Hub brings together experts from physics and engineering from the universities of Birmingham, Glasgow, Imperial, Nottingham, Southampton, Strathclyde and Sussex, NPL, the British Geological Survey and over 70 industry partners. The Hub has over 100 projects, valued at approximately £100 million, and has 17 patent applications.

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