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Quantum in Context: Infleqtion Key to UK Quantum PNT Tech Test

Quantum in Context: Infleqtion Key to UK Quantum PNT Tech Test

The News: Infleqtion, BAE Systems, and QinetiQ announced the world-first flight test of key UK-developed quantum technologies underlying the next generation of Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) systems. The test was supported with funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and delivered by Innovate UK for the High-BIAS 2 and ORACL projects. See the Infleqtion press release for more details.

Quantum in Context: Infleqtion Key to UK Quantum PNT Tech Test
Image Source: QinetiQ

Quantum in Context: Infleqtion Key to UK Quantum PNT Tech Test

Analyst Take: While traditional sensing systems will continue to improve, quantum sensors will be essential for avoiding Global Positioning System (GPS) spoofing and jamming; navigating on land, air, sea, and space in commercial and military transportation; and developing and operating safe autonomous vehicles. Quantum sensors may reach Practical Quantum Advantage before quantum computing systems.

Where Are You Now and Where Are You Going?

Whether in a car, truck, plane, ship, submarine, or crewed mission to Mars, you must have precise information about your position and time. This data, together with that received from sensors for linear movement and rotation in three dimensions, is essential for navigation.

Though often best known nowadays for nascent computing systems, we have used quantum technology for decades in atomic clocks and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) medical imaging. In both cases, the quantum tools provide much greater accuracy and resolution. In addition, MRIs are safer for patients than X-rays.

Quantum company Infleqtion (based in Boulder, Colorado, in the US and Oxford in the UK), defense and space company BAE Systems (based in London, UK), and defense company QinetiQ (based in Farnborough, Hampshire, UK), successfully tested two critical technologies for the upcoming quantum generation of PNT: the Infleqtion Tiqker optical atomic clock and the creation of clusters of ultra-cold neutral atoms in the form of a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC). This state of matter exhibits quantum behavior for multiple atoms, commonly only seen for quantum particles such as electrons and photons. When arranged in different 3D geometric patterns and controlled by lasers within a vacuum, we can use BECs for highly sensitive clocks, gyroscopes, inertial sensors, gravimeters, and radio frequency receivers.

The world-first successful airborne test of an optical atomic clock and BEC creation paves the way for developing prototype quantum devices for navigation and communications. Infleqtion provided the rubidium-based quantum tech, BAE Systems was the systems integrator, and QinetiQ provided its RJ100 Airborne Technology Demonstrator for the flight.

Quantum in Context: Infleqtion Key to UK Quantum PNT Tech Test
Image Source: QinetiQ

Dead Reckoning

If you know where you are, what direction you are pointing, and your speed, and you can measure elapsed time, you can calculate where you will end up. For example, if you are pointing due north and traveling 25 kph in a straight line on a flat surface, after 3 hours, you will be 75 km north of your starting position.

What assumptions did I make in that sentence?

  • You have an accurate compass reading, giving your direction.
  • You know your speed, which someone or thing may have measured as distance divided by time.
  • You know you are traveling in a straight line without deviation. (We call this linear motion.)
  • The surface is flat, unlike most places on Earth over a non-trivial distance.
  • You know when 3 hours exactly have elapsed.

This process is called dead reckoning, and sailors on ships at sea used this for centuries to determine their position. The critical weakness was measuring time accurately, with often disastrous navigational results. In her book Longitude, Dava Sobel describes the problem and the development of an accurate maritime chronometer by John Harrison.

Other than the question of measuring time accurately, other problems interfere with navigation:

  • Travel is rarely in a straight line. Instead, we zig-zag in three dimensions.
  • We change our speed intentionally or fail to keep it constant.
  • We also rotate in three dimensions, changing our positions and speed due to gravity, air pressure, or water pressure.

Over time, minor errors in any of these factors accumulate, giving us highly inaccurate measurements of our position. In the best case, we can correct our position using a backup system and reach our intended destination. In the worst case, we crash into the ground, a mountain, the water, a building, another vehicle, or a person.

The Threats to GPS/GNSS for Navigation and Timing

The US has deployed 31 satellites within its GPS for time and positioning. In addition, China, Russia, the European Union, and other countries and regions have placed dozens of other global navigation satellite systems (GNSSs) in space for public and military use. These satellites are time servers: a receiver uses the time and position data sent by four satellites to determine longitude, latitude, and altitude and correct for some reception errors.

GPS denial or interference happens when a signal is blocked or made unusable. This occurred in January 2022 in a 50-nautical mile radius around the Denver, Colorado, airport when a device emitted a signal on the same frequency used by GPS. This interference affected ground and air transportation and communication towers. Data and communications networks rely on accurate times to synchronize data movement.

GPS spoofing occurs when something substitutes a valid but incorrect signal for a satellite’s initial signal. Imagine if a plane is coming in for a landing on a cloudy day with poor visibility. If GPS is spoofed, the aircraft might miss the runway or hit it prematurely if the altitude reading is incorrect. Some backup systems may detect the problems and give accurate enough data if something triggers them.

GPS spoofing, interference, and denial are increasing by adversaries on all sides of conflicts around the world. They have not just affected military vehicles and systems; navigation on commercial flights and ships is disturbed.

Quantum Clocks and Sensors Are Heading Toward Practical Quantum Advantage

In this scenario, Practical Quantum Advantage means that quantum clocks and sensors for PNT, working with traditional systems or using them as backups, provide significantly more accuracy and safety than the traditional systems alone.

Several years ago, I thought introducing quantum technology for PNT was marketing FUD—Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt—meant to boost investment, government support, and sales. I am wiser now, and interference with GPS signals is real and increasing. Quantum is not the only path forward, but it is a logical and, I feel, inevitable approach to PNT. It warrants government funding and cooperation under national agreements such as AUKUS.

Quantum PNT is a dual-use technology. We will likely see it for defense and military use first, followed by commercial applications. Though the three companies tested on a plane, you can see why autonomous vehicles such as passenger cars will eventually have built-in quantum PNT systems.

Key Takeaway: Step-by-step, companies such as Infleqtion, BAE Systems, and QinetiQ are moving us toward a quantum future for reliable and safer navigation on land and sea, in the air, under the water, and in space.

I look forward to further progress and announcements from these companies regarding quantum sensors working individually and as integrated PNT units. To reach our ultimate goals, we will require the development of necessary adjacent technologies, including photonic integrated circuits/silicon photonics to reduce SWAP-C. Large and small companies must focus and invest more in this technology for us to attain our desired quantum future.

Disclosure: The Futurum Group is a research and advisory firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this article. The author is a former employee of Infleqtion and holds an equity position in the company. The author does not hold an equity position in any other company mentioned in this article.

Analysis and opinions expressed herein are specific to the analyst individually and data and other information that might have been provided for validation, not those of The Futurum Group as a whole.

Other Insights from The Futurum Group:

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Image Credit: QinetiQ

Author Information

Dr. Bob Sutor has been a technical leader and executive in the IT industry for over 40 years.Bob’s industry role is to advance quantum and AI technologies by building strong business, partner, technical, and educational ecosystems. The singular goal is to evolve quantum and AI to help solve some of the critical computational problems facing society today. Bob is widely quoted in the press, delivers conference keynotes, and works with industry analysts and investors to accelerate understanding and adoption of quantum technologies.Bob is the Vice President and Practice Lead for Emerging Technologies at The Futurum Group. He helps clients understand sophisticated technologies in order to make the best use of them for success in their organizations and industries. He is also an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University at Buffalo, New York, USA.More than two decades of Bob’s career were spent in IBM Research in New York. During his time there, he worked on or led efforts in symbolic mathematical computation, optimization, AI, blockchain, and quantum computing. He was also an executive on the software side of the IBM business in areas including middleware, software on Linux, mobile, open source, and emerging industry standards. He was the Vice President of Corporate Development and, later, Chief Quantum Advocate, at Infleqtion, a quantum computing and quantum sensing company based in Boulder, Colorado USA.Bob is a theoretical mathematician by training, has a Ph.D. from Princeton University, and an undergraduate degree from Harvard College.

He’s the author of a book about quantum computing called Dancing with Qubits which was published in 2019, with the Second Edition scheduled for release in April, 2024. He is also the author of the 2021 book Dancing with Python, an introduction to Python coding for classical and quantum computing.Areas in which he’s worked: quantum computing, AI, blockchain, mathematics and mathematical software, Linux, open source, standards management, product management and marketing, computer algebra, and web standards.

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