London on the globe
The new device will be able to pinpoint any location without being detected or tampered with © Dreamstime

The Ministry of Defence is investing millions of pounds to look for the holy grail of navigation: a tamper and interference-proof device capable of pinpointing a location anywhere on the globe.

Scientists at Porton Down and the National Physical Laboratory believe they are three to five years away from developing a “quantum compass” that would be able to locate itself based on the subatomic effects of the earth’s magnetic field.

The technology, which would have no need for satellites or fixed points of reference such as radio masts, is of military interest around the world, because of the limitations of space-based navigation systems.

In February, the US pioneer of GPS, the most widely used satellite navigational array, warned that the system was under strain and was extremely vulnerable to deliberate disruption or attack.

The MoD sees particular use for a new technology on its nuclear submarines, which need to navigate with great stealth and accuracy, and rarely communicate with the outside world.

Without regular fixes, even the most sophisticated navigational systems can produce inaccuracies that amount to as much as 1km a day.

Many government strategic planners are keen to develop alternatives to satellite navigation systems.

Britain is building a land-based antenna array to act as a back-up to GPS devices. South Korea is constructing a similar array, in the wake of jamming attacks by North Korea.

“There is nothing in physics that could be used – given the knowledge we have now – to disrupt one of these [new] devices,” said Bob Cockshott at the NPL.

Scientists say the MoD technology could have civilian applications, as GPS does, and may eventually be available for use in smart phones.

Several quantum-navigation technologies are being developed at Porton Down and the NPL. At a basic level, they work by supercooling trapped ions and reducing the effect of external radiation so they are sensitive only to electromagnetic fluctuations produced by the earth.

Measuring the influence of those fluctuations on the particles should allow scientists to track the movement of a chip containing the trapped ions with extreme precision.

Quantum research has been identified by the government as part of its scientific agenda with military technologies at the forefront. Research into quantum navigation is Porton Down’s biggest priority in the field.

In his Autumn Statement, the chancellor earmarked £270m for research through a “quantum technologies programme”.

While other countries – particularly the US – are also engaged in such research, the UK is an international leader. Nokia, Hitachi and Toshiba have all established quantum research laboratories in Britain.

“We are at the forefront of this in the UK,” said Neil Stansfield, head of technology and innovation at DSTL, as Porton Down is formally known. “My informed guess is that the first prototype could be ready in three to five years. The key thing for us is to develop a device that is independent of space. We have a number of military applications for that.”

So far, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory has developed a quantum navigation system equivalent in size to a “3ft shoebox”, Mr Stansfield said. The focus of efforts now is to miniaturise the device so it could be used by soldiers in the field – not just aboard nuclear submarines and ships.

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