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NSF funds project to develop photonic chips for navigation

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Researchers at the University of Rochester have received a new grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop photonic chips for navigation. The chips could replace the gyroscopes currently used in uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, enabling them to fly where Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) signals are jammed or unavailable. Using a quantum technique called weak value amplification, the scientists aim to provide the same sensitivity level of bulk optical gyroscopes on small, handheld photonic chips, potentially transforming navigation for drones.

Jaime Cardenas, an associate professor at the university’s Institute of Optics, and principal investigator on the project, says the optical fibre gyroscopes used in the most advanced drones today contain spools of fibre several kilometres long or have limited dynamic range.

"Right now, the sensitivity and stability of a gyroscope must be fundamentally traded off between its size and weight," he says. "As drones, UAVs, and satellites become smaller and more ubiquitous, the need for ultracompact navigation-grade gyroscopes will become critical. State-of-the-art miniaturised gyroscopes are compact and robust but suffer from a performance deficit that hinders their use in navigation."

According to Cardenas, weak value amplification provides advantages over traditional methods because it boosts the signal of an interferometric measurement without the cost of amplifying several forms of technical noise. But previous demonstrations of weak value amplification have required complex lab setups with precise alignment; Cardenas strives to implement weak value amplification on a tiny photonic chip with a high quality factor ring resonator.

Cardenas’ collaborators on the project include physicist Andrew Jordan, formerly a faculty member at Rochester and now at Chapman University. Cardenas says he will also work with the university’s David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity to broaden the participation of underrepresented groups through research experiences for high school students from the Rochester City School District that aim to spark their desire for a career in STEM.

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