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UK hails first test of quantum aircraft navigation

In a series of test flights, a team led by quantum technology specialist Infleqtion has demonstrated two ground-breaking quantum technologies to protect aircraft from GPS jamming.

Supported by £8m of quantum technology funding from the UK government, the company announced it had successfully completed commercial flight trials of advanced quantum-based navigation systems that cannot be jammed or spoofed by hostile actors.

The test is part of a project funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), specifically focusing on creating quantum sensors to address the UK’s heavy reliance on global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), such as the Global Positioning System (GPS), for location, navigation and timing (PNT) data. 

While GPS jamming is currently relatively rare and does not directly impact an aircraft’s flight path, new quantum-based PNT systems could, over time, offer one part of a larger solution to providing highly accurate and resilient navigation.

Infleqtion’s UK president, Timothy Ballance, said: “Our recent trials mark a significant step forward in the development of quantum PNT solutions. The work we have done directly addresses the critical need to reduce our reliance on satellite navigation systems, which are vulnerable to various risks.”

The technology tested on the flight will form part of a Quantum Inertial Navigation System (Q-INS), which has the potential to revolutionise PNT by offering greater accuracy and resilience, independent of traditional satellite navigation using GPS.

The work we have done directly addresses the critical need to reduce our reliance on satellite navigation systems, which are vulnerable to various risks Timothy Ballance, Infleqtion

PNT can be used to determine a location, navigate and keep track of time, based on precision clocks. These ultra-accurate clocks are crucial for various applications. The portable production of ultracold atoms is another building block. These atoms, cooled to temperatures near absolute zero, are regarded as key in certain quantum devices, such as when building quantum accelerometers and gyroscopes that form the heart of a Q-INS.

UK science minister Andrew Griffith, who was on board the final test flight, said: “From passenger flights to shipping, we all depend on navigation systems that are accurate, safe and secure. The scientific research we are supporting here on quantum technology could well provide the resilience to protect our interests.

“The fact that this technology has flown for the first time in British skies is further proof of the UK as one of the world leaders on quantum.”

According to the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, this funding, together with the £2.5bn National Quantum Strategy and the National Quantum Technologies Programme, aims to cement the UK’s position as a leading quantum-enabled economy.

Henry White, sensing technology lead at BAE Systems, called the trials an important step forward in developing quantum technology that could ultimately offer a significant military advantage.

“Knowing reliably and precisely when and where any asset and sensor system are feeds into additional options for platform design and capability. This will play a big role in supporting the development of next-generation combat air systems,” he said. “Working closely with wider industry and experts now, at the early stages of the technology development, helps us to shape the solution in a way that ensures the technology can be integrated on military applications.”

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