Next time your GPS goes down, here’s an alternative way to find out where you are. Use lightning strikes.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s futuristic tech lab, is working on the idea. In fact, DARPA has five programs underway to help soldiers find their way when GPS is on the fritz.
Depriving an army of GPS is almost like depriving a crackhead of drugs. Soldiers get lost, but GPS-guided smart bombs also can miss their targets.
“GPS signals cannot be received underground or underwater and can be significantly degraded or unavailable during solar storms,” DARPA said in a news release.
“More worrisome is that adversaries can jam signals. GPS continues to be vital, but its limitations in some environments could make it an Achilles’ heel if warfighters rely on it as their sole source of PNT [positioning, navigation and timing] information.”
The most interesting solution is called Adaptable Navigation Systems, which DARPA describes as using “cold-atom interferometry, which measures the relative acceleration and rotation of a cloud of atoms stored within a sensor.”
The system will also take advantage of other forms of signals to generate navigational data, including TV signals and lightning strikes.
Imagine that. Lightning guiding smart bombs to their targets.
DARPA is working on other methods to help soldiers find their way. Quantum-Assisted Sensing and Readout, otherwise known as QuASAR, aims to build the world’s most accurate atomic clocks, which will be off by less than one second every five billion years.
Scientists also working on superfast lasers to link the clocks because those super-accurate QuASAR clocks “are more precise than our current ability to synchronize between them.”
DARPA also is aiming small—very small—with microscopic gyroscopes, clocks and other gear that will provide location data without taking up much space or using much power.
“Position, navigation, and timing are as essential as oxygen for our military operators,” DARPA director Arati Prabhakar said. “Now we are putting new physics, new devices and new algorithms on the job so our people and our systems can break free of their reliance on GPS.”
Not quite. Lightning-strike navigation, micro-gyroscopes and atomic clocks that will accurate time long after the Sun has burned out and the Earth is a dead cinder, will undoubtedly prove useful.
But they’re merely another form of technology with their own vulnerabilities. They’ll inevitably malfunction in some way—or the enemy will find some method to interfere with them.
It’ll always be good to know how to read a map.
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