Your Next Car Could Have Quantum Sensors Instead of GPS

Satellites aren’t always available

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers have come up with an alternative navigation system that uses quantum mechanics instead of GPS. 
  • GPS systems can be jammed or unavailable. 
  • Some autonomous cars can navigate using visual cues from cameras, radars, and lidars correlated with map information.
Closeup of. GPS unit mounted on the dashboard of a car that's in traffic at night.

Rebecca Nelson / Getty Images

You soon might not need GPS to find your way around. 

Global positioning systems (GPS) have become ubiquitous in everything from phones to cars. But researchers have come up with a new method that uses quantum mechanics to keep track of directions instead of the satellite network. 

"There is always a chance that GPS is unavailable," Sandia National Laboratories scientist Peter Schwindt told Lifewire in an email interview. "Perhaps you are in an area where you cannot receive GPS, such as in an urban canyon or a tunnel. Also, GPS is easily jammed. Thus, if the applications cannot tolerate the risk of GPS unavailability, an alternative is required."

Working With Uncertainty

Schwindt and his colleagues recently described the quantum device in a paper published in AVS Quantum Science. It's an avocado-shaped gadget with titanium metal walls and sapphire windows that contains a cloud of atoms at the right conditions for precise navigational measurements.

The vacuum package would go into an atom interferometer, accelerometer, or gyroscope. Three high-precision accelerometers and three gyroscopes form an inertial measurement unit, which measures tiny changes in direction. 

"Atom interferometer technology has the potential to be a very high-precision inertial sensor that could allow navigation for hours without external updates if the precision in the laboratory can be translated into a practical device," Schwindt said. 

There are two main ways of navigating without GPS, Schwindt said. The most common method is to use other external signals to gain position information, such as cell phone signals. The other is to use inertial sensors, which measure the acceleration and rotation (e.g., a car or plane) without the need for external signals. Inertial measurements are continuously processed to supply a continuous update to the platform's position, orientation, and velocity. 

Robocars Need Better Maps

Autonomous car companies are making strides in finding ways for their vehicles to navigate without GPS. These autonomous cars use visual cues from cameras, radars, and lidars correlated with map information, John Fischer, vice president of advanced research and development at navigation company Orolia, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"Just as you don't need GPS to drive in your neighborhood—you have the maps and visual cues stored in your brain—autonomous nav systems now have huge map databases and street views to reference," he added. "Add to this an inertial navigation system—using gyroscopes and accelerometers to measure relative movement—and you have good navigation."

A quantum device designed as a navigational aid.
A quantum device designed as a navigational aid.

Sandia National Laboratories

For those who won't be hopping in a Tesla, GPS, itself, is due for an upgrade. A new generation of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites already in space has signals up to 1,000 times stronger at the Earth's surface, and can be used as an alternative to GPS. 

Also, the relatively new 5G cellular network will be offering Location Based Services (LBS) that will approach GPS accuracy, Fischer said.

One way users could benefit from alternatives to GPS is enhanced security, cybersecurity expert Magda Chelly told Lifewire. 

"I feel worried about the GPS application and the potential to alter the data integrity or change the real GPS coordinates of a car or any other device," she added. "We are seeing thousands of mobile applications providing services based on GPS coordinates. However, what is concerning is that the GPS coordinates can be spoofed if the application isn't using the right security."

Even if you are using GPS, there are ways to improve the experience. Self-driving cars can be augmented with wayfinding tech, such as an HD map that combines lidar and optical sensors, Tatiana Vyunova, a manager at mapping company HERE Technologies, told Lifewire. 

Atom interferometer technology has the potential to be a very high-precision inertial sensor that could allow navigation for hours without external updates...

Mercedes-Benz, for example, uses Here's HD Live Maps on some of its cars, enabling users to "see beyond" GPS and the range of onboard sensors. 

"Additional sources of localization and positioning provide systems with extra layers of security, safety, and redundancy," Vyunova said. "Common causes include GPS jamming, spoofing or signal errors in urban canyons."

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