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National Timing Center program aims to develop a quantum-powered terrestrial alternative to satellites

Berenice Baker, Editor, Enter Quantum

March 13, 2024

2 Min Read
A satellite above the Earth
A terrestrial quantum timing system could offer an alternative to satellite-based GPS. Getty

In celebration of British Science Week and its theme of “Time,” the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) this week launched its Timing and Quantum Technologies Innovation Node.

National critical infrastructure is dependent on highly accurate timing making it vulnerable to disruptions to global position, navigation and timing (PNT) services like global positioning system (GPS). Researchers are exploring quantum technologies that play a vital role in ensuring the continuous provision of accurate time in GPS-deprived environments.  

Speaking at a launch event, Leon Lobo, head of the National Timing Center at NPL, reiterated the importance of accurate position, navigation and timing (PNT) with GPS as the best-known example of this.

“GPS features in every aspect of our lives, although we may not know it. Everything that we do daily, whether it's switching the lights on or navigating to this venue effectively has been based on global navigation, satellite systems (GNSS) and the services they provide,” Lobo said.

“What is less known is that those services are to a large extent dissemination methods for timing. You have clocks on the ground, in your devices but every part of our critical national infrastructure relies on time, including the energy sector telecommunications and even the water industry.”

Related:US Air Force to Test SandboxAQ Quantum Navigation on Aircraft

So critical is GNSS that the loss to the U.K. economy if it were to become unavailable has been estimated at $2.6 billion a day. The U.S. military is developing programs to improve the resilience of satellite-based GNSS, but the NPL’s National Timing Center program is developing a quantum solution that delivers timing terrestrially across the U.K. mainland, cutting out the vulnerable path between satellites and ground stations.  

Lobo said PNT appeared for the first time last year as a standalone risk on the U.K.  National Risk Register, triggering processes to mitigate the risk of losing GPS, starting with a PNT policy framework. The role of the new Timing and Quantum Technologies Innovation Node will be to develop the quantum elements of this.

“The interface between the National PNT Office and the National Quantum Office is around delivering to needs for the future,” said Lobo. “To start to create that ecosystem for the U.K. where you have not just the new quantum solutions, but all the equipment that is required to disseminate, monitor and manage PNT services to where they’re needed at the required level of performance.”

About the Author(s)

Berenice Baker

Editor, Enter Quantum

Berenice is the editor of Enter Quantum, the companion website and exclusive content outlet for The Quantum Computing Summit. Enter Quantum informs quantum computing decision-makers and solutions creators with timely information, business applications and best practice to enable them to adopt the most effective quantum computing solution for their businesses. Berenice has a background in IT and 16 years’ experience as a technology journalist.

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