US wants portable, rugged atomic clocks

Next generation atomic clocks will help communication, navigation systems

The US military is looking for advanced portable atomic clocks it says will help bolster secure data routing, build communication systems that are insensitive to jamming and provide more reliable and robust global positioning than current time-keeping systems.

The portable atomic clock research is part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Quantum Assisted Sensing and Readout (QuASAR) program that seeks ro develop techniques to miniaturize and ruggedize high-performance atomic clocks for deployment in the field. 

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According to DARPA, many defense-critical applications require exceptionally precise time and frequency standards enabled only by atomic clocks.  The Global Positioning System (GPS) and the internet are two key examples.  Atomic properties are absolute, and do not "drift" or lose minutes over time.  In this sense, atoms are self-calibrated, making them ideal for precision sensing, DARPA stated.

Recent years have seen the emergence of advanced technologies that exhibit single-atom-like properties, such as nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) and nitrogen-vacancy (NV) centers in diamond that retain their characteristics even at room temperature, DARPA stated.

The application of atomic control and cooling methods to these solid-state systems will yield a new generation of sensors of extreme resolution and sensitivity, DARPA stated.  By employing these new techniques used in current laboratory atomic clocks, military clocks can be improved by orders of magnitude.  Such clocks will enable secure data routing, communication systems that are insensitive to jamming, high-resolution coherent radar, and more reliable and robust global positioning, DARPA stated.

QuASAR will develop techniques to miniaturize and ruggedize high-performance atomic clocks for deployment in the field.  What DARPA wants to see are ways to reduce the total footprint of atomic clocks to portable sizes, while maintaining high performance.  Specifically DARPA wants contractors to:

  • Demonstrate the high-risk components necessary to produce a fieldable clock. Effort need not be spent on integrated electronics and packaging of the device.
  • Integrate components and perform a proof-of-principle tabletop experiment achieving 10-16 fractional frequency stability at 1 day.
  • Provide a credible plan for a high-performance fieldable device based on program components and table top experiments.

This week's Broad Agency Announcement isn't DARPA's first foray into miniturizing the atomic clock. It has in the past looked at developing chip level clocks as well.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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