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Scientists Built a Tiny Device That Could Free Your Transits From GPS Navigation

We're nearing a new age in navigation.

Scientists Built a Tiny Device That Could Free Your Transits From GPS Navigation
The device built at Sandia National Laboratories. Bret Latter

GPS is everywhere: From providing pilots with real-time aircraft positions to getting you from point A to point B, we utilize it to find our way every day. This system works thanks to atomic clocks, which keep the satellite network absolutely in sync.

However, GPS signals can be jammed or manipulated, which is why scientists are investigating alternatives. Some speculate that, rather than relying on satellites, future vehicles may use onboard equipment to measure acceleration and rotation by beaming lasers into small clouds of rubidium gas.

Now, a team of researchers has designed and built a compact device at Sandia National Laboratories, and it has contained a cloud of atoms at the right conditions for precise navigational measurements.

In the future, it could become a key component of next-generation navigation systems since it's the first device that is tiny, energy-efficient, and dependable enough to potentially usher quantum sensors from the lab into commercial use.

On the road to next-generation navigation systems

While atomic accelerometers and gyroscopes already exist today, they are too huge and power-hungry to be used in an airplane's navigation system, for example, since they require a large vacuum system that functions with high amounts of electricity.

This is where the team at Sandia National Laboratories comes into the picture -- they've shown that quantum sensing can work without a high-powered vacuum system, all the while not sacrificing reliability, according to a study published in the journal AVS Quantum Science.

To accomplish this, the researchers utilized a pair of devices known as getters rather than a powered vacuum pump, which removes molecules that leak in and disrupt measurements. These getters, which are about the size of a "pencil eraser", employ chemical reactions to bind intruders and work without the use of a power source. Also, to take things a step further and to better keep out contaminants, the researchers built the chamber out of titanium and sapphire, which are particularly effective at blocking off gases like helium, using sophisticated fabrication techniques that are also used to bond advanced materials for nuclear weapons components.

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The technology is still in its nascent stages since it'll be some time before it can reach its maximum potential. However, the absence of an ion pump will be useful in the creation of tiny atomic sensors, especially those sensitive to magnetic fields. For the next years, the team will keep the device sealed and operational while continuing to monitor it. This procedure will determine whether the technology is ready for deployment, and in the meanwhile, speeding up the manufacture will be the scientists' first concern. 

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