Did you know that GPS doesn't work underwater? Neither did we. But apparently it's a big enough problem that the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defense is working on a futuristic solution that will allow more precise navigation by the Royal Navy's submarines and surface ships, while eventually trickling down to consumer-grade mobile devices. That all sounds great, but its abilities aren't anywhere near as cool as its name – the quantum compass.

Using subatomic particles that interact with the Earth's magnetic field (which is a phrase I never though I'd write while working at Autoblog), the accuracy of submersible navigation could be drastically improved. When a boat surfaces, pinpointing its exact location can be off by as much as half a mile. With a quantum compass, its location would be accurate to just three feet.

Not only is the quantum compass highly accurate, but it's also virtually impossible to tamper with, unlike the overworked system of GPS satellites. Because quantum mechanics. Not surprisingly, the applications for the civilian world could be immense. Cars and phones would be able to deliver pinpoint-accurate navigation information in a form that is totally constant. Hop over to GPSDaily for the details.


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  • 30 Comments
      ScottT
      • 7 Months Ago
      How are the GPS satellites overworked? My understanding is that they simply send a periodic signal with the time and the satellite's position. GPS receivers perform the actually position calculation. Whether there are 1, 100, or 10B receivers listening to a satellite's signal shouldn't have any impact on the system. I would think a GPS satellite is being worked exactly how as much as it was designed to be worked.
      johnnythemoney
      • 7 Months Ago
      Military GPS is already quite accurate, even if it doesn't work underwater. GPS consumer are purposefully "downgraded" so to speak, so I don't think this system, if it ever comes to the mass market, will be much more precise compared to what we have today. Its military version though, might be worth the time though.
        ScottT
        • 7 Months Ago
        @johnnythemoney
        FWIW, Civilian GPS is not intentionally downgraded anymore, it hasn't been for quite some time. It was called selective availability and was stopped during the Clinton administration. But the military does use a dual band system which allows for less atmospheric distortion and has some accuracy improvement (along with a slew of other features). But with the modernization that is ongoing, this difference is becoming very small.
        Narom
        • 7 Months Ago
        @johnnythemoney
        Yeah, because you know a lot more than the blooming military.
          Narom
          • 7 Months Ago
          @Narom
          Yes but its the freaking military saying military grade GPS still gets them off by half a mile, and that half a mile is important when you are a nuclear class sub marine. Do you think the British Military use a Garmin to get about? And like it also says its tamper proof. A few rockets pointed skywards or a meteor storm could see GPS knocked out. Again not useful when you are carrying nuclear war heads. I'm sorry you're so naive to believe that GPS is oh so wonderful, when it isn't even as accurate as GLONASS.
          VL00
          • 7 Months Ago
          @Narom
          What he's saying is true, its called "selective availability", I'm sorry you're clueless
          Ryan
          • 7 Months Ago
          @Narom
          Selective availability was turned off in 2000. Civilian GPS is accurate down to way less than 10 feet with high quality receivers (what is "14 ns"?). GLONASS is accurate down to 10-20ft, maybe less by now. ALL of you need to do some research, lol.
          VL00
          • 7 Months Ago
          @Narom
          GPS is NOT causing the position error, jesus, did you comprehend the article? When the sub goes underwater, the SIGNALS ARE BLOCKED. It doesn't work underwater, at all, that's the problem. You should do some research, GPS is theoretically accurate to 14 ns, GLONASS is 100 (maybe less in GLONASS-M).
          johnnythemoney
          • 7 Months Ago
          @Narom
          Narom, is you GPS, Garmin or OEM, wrong by half a mile? No, than surely a military-grade GPS isn't as well. All I said is, military GPS is precise, consumer devices not as much and on purpose, so a more precise system won't make a difference to the consumer if the same downgrade in precision is applied.
      NamorF-Pro
      • 7 Months Ago
      And what does this have to do with cars...?
        Daniel D
        • 7 Months Ago
        @NamorF-Pro
        GPS is occassionally used by vehicle drivers too. The rest is in the article I believe.
      David
      • 7 Months Ago
      "Because quantum mechanics." Lol, best use of that phrasing yet.
      mary.keana
      • 7 Months Ago
      Honda's first GPS systems used in Automobiles(the first automaker btw) did not use satellites either.
        atc98092
        • 7 Months Ago
        @mary.keana
        The phase GPS is specific to satellite navigation. I don't have any idea what Honda had or what they called it. But if they used GPS in the name or description, they either used satellite nav or they made something up. As much as I am loathe to quote Wikipedia for accuracy (and this article is missing a lot of citations): "Honda claims[4] to have created the first navigation system starting in 1983, and culminating with general availability in the 1990 Acura Legend. The original analog Electro Gyrocator system used an accelerometer to navigate using inertial navigation, as the GPS system was not yet generally available. However, it appears from Honda's concessions in their own account of the Electro Gyrocator project that Etak actually trumped Honda's analog effort with a truly practical digital system, albeit one whose effective range of operation was limited by the availability of appropriately digitized street map data." That is not GPS.
          redoctober
          • 7 Months Ago
          @atc98092
          GPS is basically short for Global Positioning System with no reference to satellite in the name, Sat Nav or GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) are more accurate to describe a satellite navigation system but of course US version of GNSS is specifically called GPS. It works both way, I guess.
        Paco
        • 7 Months Ago
        @mary.keana
        Yep, subs currently use accelerometers when underwater. After a day navigating with that, when they surface, they can be off by around a half mile.
      bonehead
      • 7 Months Ago
      "British military developing GPS navigation that works without satellites" So its "GP" navigation
      Brian Rautio
      • 7 Months Ago
      GPS does not work underwater because most radio waves cannot penetrate water very far. This means not only will your GPS not work, but neither will your cell phone, sattelite tv+radio, etc.
        atc98092
        • 7 Months Ago
        @Brian Rautio
        Correct. The US Navy used VLF (Very Low Frequency) to communicate with submerged submarines. They have a number of land radios in the US near the shore. Heard the name Oso Washington recently? (The huge landslide). There's a Navy VLF station very close to the disaster area. Although I believe that it has been decommissioned in the not too distant past. VLF is the only radio waves that can penetrate water sufficiently for submerged communication. I am told that any cars parked within the antenna array (which stretches across mountain tops) when they are transmitting must have a ground clamp attached to bleed off the rf from the car. These transmitters have power in the multi-megawatt range.
      Jasonn
      • 7 Months Ago
      "In other news, the US Military has had this technology since the 80's"
      recharged95
      • 7 Months Ago
      **that interact with the Earth's magnetic field**... works great until you swim by a big iron ore deposit. I can see countermeasures being small magnetic particles.
      Mad Bomber
      • 7 Months Ago
      Been waiting for this for a long long time. I knew it was possible and glad to see it. So long satellites and worries about Russia and China sabotaging the satellites.
      Graham Combs
      • 7 Months Ago
      I'm an anglophile since I got my first Raleigh 3-spd as a boy (made in Nottingham, England and "with Sheffield Steel"). But will Britain still have a submarine service by the time this technology is online? The Labour Party wants the submarine nuclear deterrent shut down -- just in time for a resurgent Russia and massively re-arming China. Still, it'll be neat for finding the nearest Whole Foods or Sonic Drive In on this side of the pond. Typical of the Brits though -- great ideas, no follow through.
      usa1
      • 7 Months Ago
      "Quantum Compass" sounds cool. I want one.
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