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UNB researcher leads team to improve global positioning systems using quantum physics

Author: Jeremy Elder-Jubelin

Posted on May 22, 2024

Category: UNB Fredericton

How can the behaviour of individual atoms help us determine exactly where we are in the world?

Well, the answer is a complex one that relies on quantum mechanics, lasers, ingenuity and a lot of advanced science.

Not only does Dr. Brynle Barrett, a researcher at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), have all those necessary pieces, but thanks to new funding, he’ll be packing it all up into a portable box that, he hopes, will revolutionize the location services we use every day.

Barrett, along with project collaborators at UNB, Ontario’s Quantum Valley Ideas Laboratory (QVIL), Australian company Q-CTRL, and the University of Amsterdam (UVA), has been awarded $2,999,616 in funding from the Canadian Department of National Defence’s Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security (IDEaS) program. The IDEaS program provides funding to assist Canadian innovators in solving defence and security challenges.

Together, the project team will advance science and technology, using applied quantum physics research to develop and build new technologies for a wide range of real-world applications.

“These quantum technologies will have valuable applications in both military and civilian contexts, from improved clocks and navigation capabilities in GPS-denied environments to the detection of underground voids and more accurate height determinations.” said Barrett. “Our work will have a long-term impact on remote sensing, communication systems, and improving gravity models of the Earth that are critical for position, navigation, and timing.”

In other words, like GPS technology before it, this could significantly change how we map and move through the world – and, perhaps, beyond.

The project team will develop two devices suitable for field use: a cold-atom gravimeter, which uses lasers to cool and manipulate atoms to precisely measure gravity, and an atomic clock that uses cesium vapour to provide a very accurate measurement of time. In fact, similar cesium clocks are used today to precisely define the second.

The combination of high-accuracy measurements of time and gravitational acceleration enables positioning and navigation in environments where GPS cannot, such as underground, underwater, when satellite signals are being actively jammed, or even on other planets. Because it does not rely on external signals or landmarks, this technology makes autonomous navigation a reality by matching local observations with a high-resolution gravity map.

This type of navigation system is highly sought after, with applications in areas including defence, underwater search and salvage, and natural resource exploration, among others.

Currently, a small number of ruggedized, cold-atom-based quantum sensors are commercially available; however, none of these are Canadian-made. The researchers anticipate that their project will compete with these current solutions, while also reducing reliance on external support by being usable by non-specialists.

“To remain competitive in this emerging quantum world, Canada needs to develop its own quantum sensing capabilities that go beyond the proof-of-principle table-top experiments that currently exist,” said Barrett. “This project takes a step in that direction by focusing on transportable quantum clocks and gravimeters that can be deployed outside a laboratory setting.”

The research team anticipates numerous societal benefits resulting from their work beyond the technology itself. In addition to the direct benefits for national defence and for geospatial positioning, they have identified potential applications in resource management and prospecting, climate monitoring and geophysics, among others.

Students and new researchers will also have opportunities to develop their skills in quantum technologies, including ultra-stable lasers, quantum control, atomic spectroscopy and atom interferometry, better equipping them to become the next generation of Canadian quantum talent.