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Un-jammable quantum tech takes flight

In a commercial world-first, quantum navigation technology developed in the UK, supported through UKRI funding, has been successfully tested in flight.

Image courtesy UKRI

In a first-of-its-kind achievement, the UK has successfully completed commercial flight trials of advanced quantum-based navigation systems that cannot be jammed or spoofed by hostile actors.

Global positioning system (GPS) jamming is currently relatively rare and does not directly impact an aircraft’s flight path. However, new quantum-based positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) systems are set to be part of a larger solution to providing a resilient navigation that complements space-based navigation and timing systems. This could help ensure that critical transport systems and infrastructure can operate without disruption.

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Infleqtion, a quantum technology firm, in collaboration with aerospace companies BAE Systems and QinetiQ, completed the trials at Ministry of Defence Boscombe Down in Wiltshire. Science Minister Andrew Griffith was aboard the final test flight on 9th May 2024.

These tests are the first time that this sort of ground-breaking technology has been tested in the UK on an aircraft in flight. They are also the first such flights worldwide that have been publicly acknowledged.

Funding
Led by Infleqtion and in collaboration with industry and academic partners, this project has received funding of nearly £8 million from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), delivered by Innovate UK. This includes funding through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and more recently the UKRI Technology Missions Fund.

This successful project will in turn be built upon the further £2.5 billion of funding that was announced to enable the national quantum strategy and the National Quantum Technologies Programme, to continue for a further 10 years.
World leaders on quantum

Science Minister Andrew Griffith 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 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."

Two ground-breaking quantum technologies

In a series of test flights, the team led by Infleqtion has demonstrated two ground-breaking quantum technologies both aboard QinetiQ’s RJ100 Airborne Technology Demonstrator, a modified aircraft. The two ground-breaking quantum technologies are:

  • the compact Tiqker optical atomic clock
  • the tightly confined ultra-cold-atom-based quantum system

The technology being tested on the flight will form part of a quantum inertial navigation system (Q-INS). This has the potential to revolutionise PNT, with the system offering exceptional accuracy and resilience, independent of traditional satellite navigation using GPS.

PNT helps us know our location, navigate, and keep track of time. The cornerstone of modern PNT technology is precision clocks. These ultra-accurate timekeepers are crucial for various applications, and portable production of ultracold atoms is another key piece of the puzzle.

Ultracold atoms, atoms that have been cooled to temperatures near absolute zero (the coldest possible temperature), are ideal for building quantum accelerometers and gyroscopes, which form the heart of a Q-INS.

The test is part of a project funded by UKRI specifically focusing on creating quantum sensors to address the UK’s heavy reliance on global navigation satellite system (GNSS) or GPS for location, navigation and timing data. This dependence creates a vulnerability, as a single point of failure (like jamming or spoofing GPS signals) could disrupt critical economic, defence, and strategic activities.

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The consortium working alongside Infleqtion includes:

  • Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics
  • Alter Technology UK
  • Caledonian Photonics
  • Redwave Labs
  • PA Consulting
  • BAE Systems
  • QinetiQ

Marking a significant step forward
Infleqtion UK President, Dr 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 successful flight trials demonstrate the potential of quantum technology in overcoming navigation system challenges, which is an exciting development for future applications in the aerospace industry and beyond."

Development of next generation air systems
Henry White, Sensing Technology Lead, BAE Systems, said: "These trials are 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.

"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 for military applications."

Collaborating across the defence ecosystem
Simon Galt, Managing Director (Air) at QinetiQ said: "We’re proud to be partnering with BAE Systems and Infleqtion to enable the successful trial of this cutting-edge technology, demonstrating our ability to rapidly and effectively collaborate across the defence ecosystem, combining our quantum expertise with our Airborne Technology Demonstrator jet."

Outstanding team of collaborators
Roger McKinlay, Challenge Director Quantum Technologies at Innovate UK, part of UKRI, said: "Modern infrastructure is increasingly dependent on highly accurate timing and navigation derived from satellite signals. These flight tests mark the culmination of two excellent projects, funded through UKRI, which Infleqtion has had the vision to create and the deftness in leadership to execute with an outstanding team of collaborators."

Marking a significant milestone
The completion of these flight trials marks a significant milestone towards Mission 4 of the UK’s national quantum strategy. By 2030, this mission aims to deploy quantum navigation systems on aircraft, providing next-generation accuracy and resilience independent of satellite signals.

The successful testing of an optical atomic clock, Infleqtion’s Tiqker, and core elements of a quantum inertial sensor aboard QinetiQ’s RJ100 Airborne Technology Demonstrator represents a breakthrough in airborne quantum technology.

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