The Quantum Future of PNT

After a 20-year run as the undisputed king of navigation, GPS may soon receive help from emerging quantum applications


When ambitious researchers tout quantum information science (QIS) as the driver of the next technological revolution, they’re usually referring to quantum computing as it applies to rapid data analysis and deciphering encryptions. But quantum’s first major disruption may actually come in the realm of positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT).

For two decades, American PNT has relied wholly on a constellation of 30 satellites known as the Global Positioning System (GPS). Using time and location signals from three GPS satellites, a receiver (such as a cellphone) can use tri-lateration to calculate a user’s exact location down to the meter. But terrain such as canyons, mountains, or dense vegetation can scatter GPS signals and disrupt location sharing between military field teams and command centers. Additionally, GPS is unavailable underground or when navigating within buildings. And adversaries are actively developing weaponized cyber and space systems to target American satellites and other space assets. As it exists, with no backup in place, even a partial GPS blackout could be devastating.

Because of these factors, the U.S. Defense Department is seeking alternative options to ensure military PNT continues to be resilient and reliable. Recent federal activity indicates QIS may play a major role in restructuring the DoD’s PNT capabilities from the single-solution environment of the past.

Last month, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy established a new QIS subcommittee to form and manage a federal agenda on quantum efforts. A week ago, the Air Force Research Laboratory detailed its own plans to explore QIS through joint exercises with the U.S. Army and Navy, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, as well as yet-to-be-determined challenge programs for innovators in the public sector.

Quantum technology opens the door for applications such as: long-distance inertial navigation, through which motion sensors and gyroscopes track an object’s position relative to its starting point; quantum compasses that measure position by dead reckoning using clouds of laser-frozen ions; and the world’s most accurate atomic clocks. Military organizations predict prototypes will emerge in as little as five years and early operational capabilities within 10 years, Fedscoop reports.

It’s unlikely GPS will ever go away altogether considering its ease of use and ubiquitous integration into public life, but quantum technologies represent an extra layer of security and a way to bring PNT underground, underwater, and anywhere else GPS can’t reach. To achieve operational quantum PNT will require a coordinated effort between the Defense Department and America’s allies, and likely some help from innovators in the private sector.

Photo Credit: Y. Colombe/National Institute of Standards and Technology

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