Quantum Sensors Have Arrived

Quantum sensors have arrived and they use very small amounts of energy and matter to monitor changes in gravity, time, temperature, frequency, magnetic and electric fields. Research suggests that such sensors will soon bring a revolution in measurement and signals intelligence, possibly by making it far easier to detect submarines, spacecraft, and underground facilities.

Ultra-precise time-keeping is the most important quantum-sensing achievement to date, for it adds precision to all other forms of sensing. Better timing allows the same kind of thing with all kinds of measurements.

These sensors have been commercially available in various forms for more than a half-century in magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI machine, which tracks flips in the magnetic spin of individual hydrogen atoms so as to peer into a body. For instance, it allows repeated combined observations, an approach known as “super resolution.” This approach can be compared to the way today’s photographers take multiple photos of the same scene and then combine the images using software.

The atomic clocks of the 1970s that underlie the Global Positioning System and its attendant revolution, and miniaturised atomic clock are becoming commercially available. Laboratories are working on even better timing technology that promises to be just as transformative.

The US National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) has previously declared a clock based on an atomic lattice of the chemical element Ytterbium atoms so sensitive that it wouldn’t drift more than a second in 10 billion years. “The clocks each trap a thousand Ytterbium atoms in optical lattices, grids made of laser beams. The atoms tick by vibrating or switching between two energy levels. By comparing two independent clocks, NIST physicists achieved record performance in three important measures: systematic uncertainty, stability and reproducibility,” says NIST.

Beyond making super-accurate GPS, quantum sensors can measure the shape and gravitational field of Earth to within a centimeter. Such sensing can be useful both for mapping out underground mineral resources and for precisely calculating the trajectories of ballistic missiles and other munitions.

Militaries have long sought ways to get extremely precise location data without using easy jammed GPS-type signals at all. Quantum positioning sensors track minute changes to rotation and acceleration, using Newton’s laws (adjusted for relativity) to accurately infer changes to location over time. Because they do not depend on signals from satellites or ground stations, they work anywhere, indoors, underground or underwater, and resist jamming. Defense contractors are building portable QPS packages that could fit into weapons.

NIST:    DefenseOne:    MicroSemi:      Hackaday:     Business Wire:     QT:      Science Daily:  

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