WITHOUT GPS, WE'RE SCREWED. We humans have got worryingly reliant on using the satellites hanging in orbit to get from A to B without an unfortunate detour to F, and yet there's an awful lot that can go wrong. If a satellite fails, tall buildings interfere or countries idiotically forfeit access, then our navigation is shot.
Imperial College estimates that just a day without satellite access would cost the UK £1bn, which wouldn't exactly be ideal. Fortunately, the university has ideas for a backup just in case all the satellites go caput. Though, as you can see from the picture above, it's probably not quite ready to be built into a running watch, unless the athlete in question also does some serious lifting.
The quantum compass can accurately navigate without any kind of satellite link in a really cool, but mindbending way. Using lasers, the device cools atoms to extremely low temperatures and then measures their quantum wave properties as they respond to the vehicle's movement.
"When the atoms are ultra-cold we have to use quantum mechanics to describe how they move, and this allows us to make what we call an atom interferometer," explains Dr Joseph Cotter from the Centre for Cold Matter at Imperial.
If this all feels a bit much for a Monday morning, the video below includes some very patient scientists explaining it very clearly:
Of course, there are certain drawbacks. The size of the thing is a pretty obvious one - it's designed for ships rather than your smartphone - but another is that it measures how something has moved, rather than where it is.
In other words, while GPS can pinpoint your location, this new method can only tell you where you are in relation to a known start point. All the same, it could prove to be a hugely important development for industries where any kind of GPS downtime is simply unthinkable. µ
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