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Sat December 15 2018

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Cold-atom sensors could spell end of investigative digging

12 Nov The government is backing the development of new ground sensing technology that will reduce the need for investigative drilling or digging.

Gravity Pioneer project lead George Tuckwell is divisional director for geosciences and engineering at RSK
Gravity Pioneer project lead George Tuckwell is divisional director for geosciences and engineering at RSK

A UK consortium of scientific and engineering companies has come together to develop a new industry of quantum cold-atom sensors that detect and monitor objects beneath the ground better than any current technology.

The Gravity Pioneer project has been awarded £6m in research funding from UK Research & Innovation. The project is led by engineering services company RSK with 12 quantum technology partners: Teledyne e2v, Fraunhofer UK, Altran, Geomatrix Earth Science, Magnetic Shields, UniKLasers, Silicon Microgravity, Optocap, QinetiQ, the University of Birmingham and the University of Southampton.

The project aims to build and test a new gravity instrument that will have demonstrable benefits over existing technologies on the market.

Initially, the technology will be used by road-working companies, but it could also be used in the rail network.

“Despite our increasing ability to detect and monitor objects that exist on land, in the sea, around buildings or in space, our ability to detect objects beneath the ground has not improved significantly,” explained George Tuckwell, project lead and divisional director for geosciences and engineering at RSK.

“When it comes to attempting to locate a forgotten mineshaft, determine the extent of a sinkhole or assess the quality of infrastructure, we still often resort to digging or drilling holes. This presents huge economic and societal costs as road networks are dug up, oil wells are dry or brownfield land is left undeveloped.”

Existing techniques for ground investigation include classical microgravity, ground penetrating radar and seismic technologies, but these can be limited in sensitivity, penetration or cost. Gravity Pioneer aims to develop a tested blueprint for a commercially relevant device that will overcome these challenges. Working with leading UK universities, it aims to demonstrate a 2× sensitivity improvement and a 10× measurement speed improvement over the industry standard gravity sensor.

Dr Richard Murray, business development manager at Teledyne e2v said: “The UK is world leading in quantum technology and the project brings together the best the UK has to offer in this field. Once we can demonstrate the advanced performance of quantum cold-atom sensors, the economic and societal benefits of this new quantum industry in the UK will be significant.”

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