NASA's 'Game Changing' Inertial Navigation System

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A research coalition organized by NASA and including Army and academic researchers is embarking on a three-year project that aims to make inertial navigation systems "at least 1,000 times more sensitive than current gyroscopes." The work will focus on new optical gyroscope technology, investigating how the use of optical dispersion (how different wavelengths travel through materials at different speeds) can be used to increase sensitivity and more precisely measure movement. The research is expected to lead to more precise navigation capabilities even when no landmarks or GPS signals are available.

According to NASA, in certain materials -- specifically, atomic gases -- optical dispersion "can cause pulses of light to travel faster than the speed of light in vacuum." The phenomenon is termed "fast-light" and NASA plans to use it to increase sensitivity in the optical cavity of a gyro, providing more precise measurements that form the basis of reliable, accurate inertial navigation data. The researchers believe the work will lead to other applications of the technology, including "ultra-precise measurement of acceleration, vibration, strain and magnetic field," all of which may be useful in the aerospace industry. The project is being backed by $1.8 million in funding through NASA's Space Technology Program. NASA is calling the project potentially game-changing with the potential of creating a prototype fast-light optical gyroscope that is as much as "three orders of magnitude better than the best gyroscope out there today." The technology may first be used for spacecraft, as well as aircraft and ships operated by the military. It may later become a part of commercial aviation before trickling down to the general aviation pilot community.