UK Military Taking the "Sat" out of "Sat Nav"

Wednesday, 04 June 2014

New developments funded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) could see Global Positioning Systems (GPS) replaced with new technology known as the 'quantum compass'.

It might sound like something out of a Bond film but, according to The Financial Times, the quantum compass is a real project currently in development by scientists at Porton Down and the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), funded by a £270m investment from the MoD.

The reason for the investment in new technology is due to a number of problems with the current system. GPS relies solely on information from satellites, which require expensive maintenance, are currently under strain from the volume of users on the grid, and, according to GPS pioneer Colonel Bradford Parkinson, are vulnerable to sabotage or attack.

The MoD are also interested in alternatives as submarines easily lose GPS signal when submerged, resulting in wildly inaccurate measurements when they resurface.

According to NPL scientist, the quantum compass would determine drivers' locations by tracking the effect of the earth's magnetic field on ions trapped in the device. This system, we're told, offers numerous benefits on old satellite navigation systems, including pinpoint accuracy and, of course, the removal of satellites from the equation.

What's more, scientist Bob Cockshott told the FT, “There is nothing in physics that could be used – given the knowledge we have now – to disrupt one of these [new] devices.”

According to Porton Down head of technology and innovation Neil Stansfield, the UK is at the forefront of quantum compass technology and is expected to deliver a fully functional prototype 'in three to five years'. Current incarnations are the size of a 'three foot shoe box', so drivers will also have to wait for the devices to be shrunk down to a suitable size.

Frankly, we can't wait to see this more accurate system arrive. A recent survey found that sat nav errors cause around £200m in damages and car insurance claims each year, with up to 83% of GPS users adamant that they have been misled by dodgy digital decision makers. So anything that improves safety on the road is a welcome development.


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