Gravity Pioneer

About the project

Despite our increasing ability to detect and monitor objects that exist on land, sea, around buildings or in space, our ability to detect objects beneath the ground has not improved significantly. When it comes to attempting to locate a buried and forgotten pipe, telling the extent of a sink hole or assessing the quality of infrastructure we still often resort to digging or drilling holes. This presents a huge economic and societal cost as road networks are dug up, oil wells are dry or brown-field land is left undeveloped. Existing techniques are all fundamentally limited in either their sensitivity (classical microgravity), their penetration (Ground Penetrating Radar) or their cost (seismic).

For over 30 years, universities and academics have been exploiting the strange effects of quantum superposition to measure gravity with astonishing sensitivity. Using a process called cold-atom interferometry, the wave-partial duality of a rubidium atom is compared to the phase of a laser beam in a way which can detect very small changes in the way atoms fall freely in a vacuum. Changes in this free-fall can be used to determine the local strength of gravity and if this measurement is sensitive enough, the measurement can be used to tell whether there are voids, pipes, tunnels, oil and gas reserves in the ground beneath your feet.

Although the potential is there, there are huge scientific and engineering challenges to delivering this performance. This UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funded project is a collaboration effort between the best scientific and engineering companies the UK has to offer. Working with leading UK universities, these companies are looking to overcome these challenges, and develop a new industry of ‘quantum’ cold-atom sensors in the UK. If these advanced performances can be demonstrated, the economic and societal benefit of this new ‘quantum’ industry in the UK is expected to be significant and long-lasting.