The rapid increase of quantum technologies in recent years has led researchers to examine how quantum applications can impact nearly every industry. Applications in one area of quantum research, quantum sensing, show promise in helping to advance fields ranging from medicine to seismology. In aviation, quantum sensing is being explored to enable navigational solutions that function based on extremely precise quantum metrology.
Today, commercial aircraft rely on global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) to operate, navigating based on geopositioning information provided by satellites. But with advancements in autonomous flight systems and the rise of aviation incidents related to jamming and spoofing – interrupting an aircraft’s ability to receive GNSS signals or deceiving an aircraft altogether with false GNSS signals – researchers are exploring a variety of navigational alternatives to strengthen existing systems by creating redundancy.
Quantum sensing utilizes advanced sensors to detect phenomena at an atomic level and interpret it for an array of applications. These sensors have been utilized in some form for decades in devices like MRI machines and atomic clocks, among others. Recent advances in quantum research, however, as well as improvements in quantum sensor technology itself – the current generation of quantum sensors is significantly lighter and more economical than the previous generation – allow for a broader range of applications. Quantum sensors are now able to detect the smallest changes in time, temperature, and magnetic fields, for example, enabling potential use in fields including medical diagnostics, precision engineering, and geophysics.
In aviation, experts are exploring quantum sensing’s ability to detect magnetic changes for the purpose of magnetic navigation, an alternative to conventional GNSS navigation. While GNSS is the current standard, it requires a line of sight to four or more satellites and is subject to both natural and human interference. Existing alternative navigation systems are increasingly antiquated or subject to limitations. (Radar, for example, can be effective when paired with terrain maps and a radar altimeter, but is largely ineffective over water or desert terrain.)
Utilizing quantum sensors to detect variations in magnetic fields, systems can compare this data to maps of the earth’s magnetic field to determine an aircraft’s position. While this approach requires existing magnetic maps, these maps reference magnetic signals that come from within the earth, supplementing the data from GNSS satellites and providing a useful differentiation. Magnetic navigation can offer an all-weather, all-terrain navigation alternative that resists jamming and spoofing and does not require any additional infrastructure. This is not only a promising navigational approach, but a necessary evolution in the development of autonomous flight because, in order to certify autonomous flight solutions for commercial use, safety-critical systems like navigation require redundancies.
Acubed & SandboxAQ
In alignment with Acubed’s culture of innovative solutions, SandboxAQ – a company developing solutions at the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum technologies – has collaborated with Acubed to further research how quantum sensors and magnetic navigation can augment existing systems. Accompanying Acubed’s ongoing research, the innovation center installed quantum sensing technology on the Acubed test aircraft to test and train SandboxAQ’s magnetic navigation system. Because quantum sensors capture data at such a detailed level, SandboxAQ has paired its sensing technology with AI to filter out irrelevant noise and more effectively interpret magnetic data.
This is not Acubed’s first evaluation of quantum technologies. Acubed previously partnered with qBraid to explore how quantum computing can improve areas like flight path optimization. Research into quantum sensing, however, represents a promising step toward developing magnetic navigation capabilities and ultimately certifying autonomous function for commercial use. Although developing the system has been an iterative process, it has provided valuable insights on how to integrate magnetic sensing technology into the autonomous navigation stack and demonstrated the agility of Acubed’s flight lab. Utilizing the lab in this fashion enables experts to validate scalable autonomous flight solutions for future aircraft and evaluate emerging technologies like quantum sensing in an accelerated, cost-effective manner.
- Eric Euteneuer