Advancing Beyond GPS: The Potential of Quantum Photonic Chips in Transforming Drone Navigation

by Tatsuya Nakamura
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Quantum Photonic Chips in Drone Navigation

Researchers are working on utilizing the concept of weak value amplification in quantum mechanics to supplant gyroscopes in drone technology.

Scientists at the University of Rochester are in the process of creating photonic chips designed to take the place of the gyroscopes presently employed in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The goal is to facilitate navigation for drones in environments where GPS signals are either obstructed or non-existent. By leveraging a quantum methodology known as weak value amplification, the research team aspires to achieve the same level of sensitivity as that of conventional bulk optical gyroscopes, but within the compact form factor of handheld photonic chips. This could fundamentally alter the navigation systems used in drones.

Funding and Obstacles in Gyroscope Technology

Jaime Cardenas, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Optics, has been awarded a new grant from the National Science Foundation to further this photonic chip development through the year 2026. Cardenas points out that the optical fiber gyroscopes currently in use in cutting-edge drones often contain kilometers-long spools of fiber or possess a restricted dynamic range.

The research, supported by the National Science Foundation, aims to develop these photonic chips using weak value amplification as a method to replace traditional mechanical gyroscopes in UAVs. Photo credit: University of Rochester / J. Adam Fenster

“In the existing paradigm, there is an intrinsic trade-off between the gyroscope’s sensitivity and stability versus its dimensions and weight,” Cardenas states. “As UAVs, drones, and satellites become increasingly compact and widespread, the demand for ultra-small navigation-grade gyroscopes is expected to rise significantly. Although current state-of-the-art miniaturized gyroscopes are both compact and sturdy, they face a performance gap that limits their applicability in navigation systems.”

The Role of Weak Value Amplification and Collaborative Efforts

Cardenas elucidates that weak value amplification holds benefits over traditional techniques by amplifying the signal in interferometric measurements without incurring the costs associated with elevating various kinds of technical noise. Previous attempts at implementing weak value amplification required elaborate laboratory configurations with exact alignments. However, Cardenas is determined to incorporate this quantum technique into a minuscule photonic chip equipped with a high-quality factor ring resonator.

Collaborating with Cardenas on this research initiative is physicist Andrew Jordan, who was formerly affiliated with the University of Rochester and is now a faculty member at Chapman University. Additionally, Cardenas plans to engage with the David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity at the University. The aim is to expand the involvement of marginalized groups by offering research experiences to high school students from the Rochester City School District, with the intention of encouraging their interest in STEM careers.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Quantum Photonic Chips in Drone Navigation

What is the primary focus of the research at the University of Rochester?

The primary focus is on the development of photonic chips designed to replace traditional gyroscopes in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. These chips aim to enable drone navigation in environments where GPS signals are unavailable or jammed. The researchers are using a quantum technique called weak value amplification to achieve this goal.

Who is leading this research and what is the source of funding?

The research is being led by Jaime Cardenas, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester. The project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, which is expected to support the research through the year 2026.

What challenges are faced by current gyroscopic technology in drones?

Current gyroscopic technology faces a trade-off between sensitivity and stability on one side and size and weight on the other. As UAVs and drones become smaller and more widespread, there is an increasing need for ultra-small, navigation-grade gyroscopes. Existing miniaturized gyroscopes, while compact and sturdy, suffer from a performance gap that limits their usefulness in navigation systems.

How does weak value amplification differ from traditional methods?

Weak value amplification offers the advantage of boosting the signal in interferometric measurements without the downside of amplifying various kinds of technical noise. Traditional methods generally require elaborate laboratory setups with precise alignments, but the researchers aim to implement weak value amplification on a compact photonic chip with a high-quality factor ring resonator.

Who are the collaborators on this project?

Physicist Andrew Jordan, formerly a faculty member at the University of Rochester and now at Chapman University, is collaborating on this research. Additionally, Jaime Cardenas plans to work with the David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity to involve underrepresented groups by offering research experiences to high school students from the Rochester City School District.

What is the broader impact of this research?

The research has the potential to revolutionize drone navigation by making it more reliable and versatile, especially in environments where GPS is not available or is compromised. It could also pave the way for advancements in other fields that rely on precise navigation, such as satellites. Furthermore, by involving underrepresented groups in the research, the project aims to encourage a more diverse future workforce in the STEM fields.

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