Today our methods of pinpointing locations on Earth are reliant on space-based satellite navigation systems such as the Global Positioning System (GPS).
But scientists in the UK claim to have found a way to mimic the functions of GPS without sending anything into space.
Known as a ‘quantum compass’, this revolutionary method would use the subatomic effects on Earth’s magnetic field and could one day be employed in smartphones.
GPS, although one of the great inventions of the modern age, has a number of limitations.
Most notably, it relies on satellites being launched into space.
And the US has previously warned that the system is at capacity and could be vulnerable to attack.
But GPS is also limited with regards to submarines – when they dive underwater it no longer works.
This means that when a submarine eventually resurfaces, efforts to locate it can be out by more than half a mile (one kilometre).
A quantum compass would, apparently, reduce that inaccuracy down to just three feet (one metre).
That’s according to the scientists behind the project at the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) in Porton Down, UK.
And the breakthrough is all the more impressive for being impregnable, unlike GPS, ensuring that no outside interference can disrupt it.
‘There is nothing in physics that could be used – given the knowledge we have now – to disrupt one of these [new] devices,” Bob Cockshott at the National Physics Laboratory, who are also involved in the research, said in the Financial Times.
But it’s not just militaristic applications that make this technology so appealing.
The scientists say saw quantum compass devices could eventually be used in smartphones.
‘The defence industry often acts as a pioneer in the development of new technologies and the potential benefits of a future in which we can navigate by inner space rather than outer space will impact both the military and civilian world,’ says Neil Stansfield, Head of Knowledge, Innovation, and Futures Enterprise at DSTL, in a release
‘Quantum TNS [Time, Navigation and Sensing] technologies could bring game-changing advantages to the UK defence sector and support markets measured in billions of pounds, here in the UK and around the world.
‘Whilst there are some significant obstacles, it’s exciting to see how well-placed the UK is on the global stage to address the significant technical and systematic challenges that remain in commercialising quantum technologies and accelerating exploitation.
It’s understood that companies including Nokia, Hitachi and Toshiba are all research such quantum technologies.
In 2013 the UK announced an investment of £270 million over five years researching the possibility of translating quantum science to new products and services.
Aside from navigation, quantum clocks could also be a lucrative market around the world.
The exploitation of quantum mechanics that underpins the laws of nature at the smallest length scales has already given the world a wealth of new technologies including semiconductors, microprocessors, lasers, nuclear energy, thermal imagers and digital cameras.