'Unhackable' navigation system flown in world first

Tests are the first time the ground-breaking technology has been tested in the UK

The quantum navigation system was tested at Boscombe Down Airfield in Wiltshire, the UK. Getty Images
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The Ministry of Defence has achieved a first by successfully completing commercial flight trials of a new quantum-based positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) system that cannot be jammed or spoofed by hostile actors.

The system is designed to stop flights from being affected by GPS jamming, which is a rare occurrence, while also providing accurate and resilient navigation that complements current satellite systems.

Infleqtion, a quantum technology company, has been working with aerospace companies BAE Systems and QinetiQ on the project, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology said.

Trials were completed at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire this week.

These tests are the first time that this sort of ground-breaking technology has been tested in the UK on an aircraft in flight, the department said.

They are also the first such flights worldwide that have been publicly acknowledged, it added.

Science Minister Andrew Griffith, who was aboard the final test flight on Thursday, said: “From passenger flights to shipping, we all depend on navigation systems that are accurate, safe and secure.

“The scientific research we are supporting here on quantum technology could well provide the resilience to protect our interests.

“The fact that this technology has flown for the first time in British skies is further proof of the UK as one of the world leaders on quantum.”

Revolutionary system

A compact Tiqker optical atomic clock and a tightly confined ultra-cold-atom-based quantum system were among the technology demonstrated in a series of test flights.

It is hoped the technology may form part of a quantum inertial navigation system (Q-INS), which has the potential to revolutionise PNT.

It could offer a system with exceptional accuracy and resilience, independent of traditional satellite navigation using GPS.

The project is backed by about £8 million ($10m) from the government.

This funding, with the £2.5 billion National Quantum Strategy and the National Quantum Technologies Programme, aims to improve the UK’s position as a leading quantum-enabled economy.

Precision clocks are key to modern PNT technology, which helps with location, navigation and keeping track of time.

The test is part of a project funded by UK Research and Innovation to try to create quantum sensors to address Britain’s heavy reliance on systems such as GPS for location, navigation and timing data.

It is thought that this dependence could create a vulnerability, in which a failure such as jamming or spoofing GPS signals could disrupt critical economic, defence and strategic activities.

'Successful flight trials'

Infleqtion UK president Dr Timothy Ballance and Henry White, of BAE Systems, described the trials as “a significant step forward” in the development of quantum PNT solutions.

“The work we have done directly addresses the critical need to reduce our reliance on satellite navigation systems, which are vulnerable to various risks,” Dr Balance said.

“The successful flight trials demonstrate the potential of quantum technology in overcoming navigation system challenges, which is an exciting development for future applications in the aerospace industry and beyond.”

Mr White believes the trials could help in developing quantum technology that could “ultimately offer a significant military advantage”.

“Knowing reliably and precisely when and where any asset and sensor system are, feeds into additional options for platform design and capability,” he added.

“This will play a big role in supporting the development of next-generation combat air systems.

“Working closely with wider industry and experts now, at the early stages of the technology development, helps us to shape the solution in a way that ensures the technology can be integrated for military applications.”

The consortium working alongside Infleqtion includes the Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics, Alter Technology UK, Caledonian Photonics, Redwave Labs, PA Consulting, BAE Systems and QinetiQ.

Updated: May 13, 2024, 11:07 AM