Sandia National Laboratories atomic physicist Jongmin Lee examines the sensor head of a cold-atom interferometer that could help vehicles stay on course where GPS is unavailable. (Photo by Bret Latter)

At Sandia Labs, a vision for navigating when GPS goes dark

October 25, 2022 8:00 am Published by

Words like “tough” or “rugged” are rarely associated with a quantum inertial sensor. The remarkable scientific instrument can measure motion a thousand times more accurately than the devices that help navigate today’s missiles, aircraft and drones. But its delicate, table-sized array of components that includes a complex laser and vacuum system has largely kept the technology grounded and confined to the controlled settings of a lab.

Jongmin Lee wants to change that.

The atomic physicist is part of a team at Sandia National Laboratories that envisions quantum inertial sensors as revolutionary, onboard navigational aids. If the team can reengineer the sensor into a compact, rugged device, the technology could safely guide vehicles where GPS signals are jammed or lost.

In a major milestone toward realizing their vision, the team has successfully built a cold-atom interferometer, a core component of quantum sensors, designed to be much smaller and tougher than typical lab setups. The team describes their prototype in the academic journal Nature Communications, showing how to integrate several normally separated components into a single monolithic structure. In doing so, they reduced the key components of a system that existed on a large optical table down to a sturdy package roughly the size of a shoebox.

“Very high sensitivity has been demonstrated in the lab, but the practical matters are, for real-world application, that people need to shrink down the size, weight and power, and then overcome various issues in a dynamic environment,” Lee said.

The paper also describes a roadmap for further miniaturizing the system using technologies under development.

Read more in the complete news release.

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