£3.4m project to develop first commercial cold atom quantum clock

£3.4m project to develop first commercial cold atom quantum clock

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty

Aquark Technologies has won a £3.4m contract from Innovate UK to develop its high-performance cold atom clock, AQlock.

AQlock will be the UK’s first commercially available cold atom quantum clock to provide more resilient timing for positing and navigation applications.

Cold atom clocks are extremely precise tools that measure time by using atoms that have been cooled to nearly absolute zero.  Aquark in Southampton uses a unique laser cooling method in AQlock, known as a super molasses, which does not require an applied magnetic field to trap atoms. This makes the clock more portable and robust than other cold atom clocks and easier to produce commercially. 

“The award from Innovate UK allows us to transition the AQlock to commercial readiness, including extensive lab and live-environment testing,” said Andrei Dragomir, CEO of Aquark. “Delivery of the AQlock will open up quantum-enabled systems for global PNT, and simultaneously establish a UK-prioritised supply chain, providing the opportunity for wholesale transition away from GNSS dependency and replacing vulnerable systems with UK quantum technology.” 

The AQlock is designed to integrate into existing systems as an accompaniment or augmentation to GNSS-enabled technology. Initial target sectors include telecoms, defence, finance and aviation, with committed end-users informing the scope of technical development.  

The UK’s current reliance on GNSS for positioning, navigation and timing for cellular networks has long been identified as a weakness. The need to develop a more resilient PNT system is part of the UK governments New framework for Greater Position, Navigation and Timing Resilience and the National Quantum Strategy.

Using cold atoms as a basis for position, navigation and timing enables a step change in performance and autonomy compared to existing PNT solutions. However, the required components of cold-atom traps to-date have rendered them too complex, large and power-intensive for meaningful real-world use, and therefore limited in their application. 

Aquark has successfully overcome this major limitation by minimising the need for magnetic field control and miniaturising its cold-atom engine. This miniaturisation means that the company can enable mass-scale implementation of highly precise sensors and quantum clocks, GNSS-independent inertial navigation, and quantum computing. During a previous Innovate UK-funded project, Aquark successfully proved feasibility of its cold atom quantum clock technology, including technical demonstration of an open-loop clock signal. 

The company has successfully demonstrated continuous trapping of cold atoms suitable for sensing while flying on a drone. The field trials on a quadcopter drone were run in partnership and joint-funded by MBDA and Innovate UK and flown by Wright Airborne Computing.

The entire system weighs less than 10 kg and withstood freezing temperatures, high humidity fog, and complex manoeuvres, operating for over an hour on internal power during full-day trials.


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