Every U.S. soldier may soon carry a miniaturized, cheaper version of the atomic clocks that ensure navigation and targeting accuracy for bombers and missiles.
The atomic time-keeping could not only provide backup for soldiers who temporarily lose GPS signals, but also boost the accuracy for soldier-carried weapons such as suicide drones or "smart" grenade launchers. The U.S. military has kicked off the final phase for manufacturing the Chip Scale Atomic Clock — a miniature atomic clock less than 1 cubic inch (15 cubic centimeters) and may end up costing just $300 compared to more expensive atomic clocks in the $10,000 range.
"You're not going to put something that expensive in a disposable piece of equipment; however, you can put a $300 component into a piece of equipment that's going to explode," said John Del Colliano, chief for the positioning, navigation and timing branch of the communications-electronics RD&E center at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.
Atomic clocks have extremely high accuracy because they use the orbiting electrons of atoms as timekeepers to avoid "drifting" and losing seconds or minutes over time. The U.S. military relies on the clocks to synchronize the timing among different weapon systems and ensure the most accurate location information for units moving around on the battlefield.
The precise timekeeping could ensure that GPS receivers recover quickly in scenarios when GPS gets disrupted or jammed, said Paul Olson, a chief engineer at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command. It could also protect soldiers against GPS "spoofing" attacks that broadcast false GPS signals in an attempt to fool GPS receivers.
"The hope is that the soldier wouldn't even know that his GPS is being jammed," Olson said.
The idea of a tiny, cheap atomic clock began with the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), but has since received funding from the Army, the Air Force and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
About 500 prototype clocks are scheduled for manufacture and delivery in September 2013. But the military hopes that its three contracted private manufacturers can each eventually make more than 20,000 atomic clocks per year to drive the cost down to $300 or less.
The spread of such precise timekeeping could benefit more than just the U.S. military — it could also spawn dozens of applications for civilian agencies such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or the Federal Aviation Administration within the next two years. Private companies might also begin using atomic clocks more widely in everyday consumer technologies.
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