11 Dec 2023

Experimental milestone with significant implications for national security

RSK led research achieves groundbreaking results in an ‘Edison moment’ which opens the door to mapping the world beneath the surface of the Earth

Nature magazine has published results showing that, for the first time ever, an object buried below ground has been identified using quantum technology as a sensor. This highly anticipated experimental milestone has profound implications for industry, human knowledge and national security.

The Gravity Pioneer project, which was funded by InnovateUK under the Industry Strategy Challenge Fund, won the international race to take the technology outside, when it became the first quantum gravity gradiometer in the world proven to work outside of laboratory conditions. The results show that, in real-world conditions, the Gravity Pioneer project has been able to detect a tunnel buried beneath the Birmingham University campus.

Environmental, engineering and technical services business RSK led the research which brought the sensor technology out of the laboratory and into the real world, in which the University of Birmingham overcame significant challenges in taking the device out into the field. The RSK led Gravity Pioneer project, funded by Innovate UK and commercial partners, then made the technology a practical reality.

The project builds on successes in the build of the sensor realised under contract from the Ministry of Defence and within the EPSRC UK Quantum Technology Hub in Sensing and Timing.

RSK directors of geosciences & engineering, George Tuckwell, who led RSK in the collaboration, explains:

“Other machines that can see below the surface of the ground for construction and scientific projects exist. But current microgravity technology is limited by a range of environmental factors, particularly vibration, and can miss devastating underground events like sinkholes. Currently three out of every five holes drilled for roadworks are in the wrong place.

“Quantum sensors – which detect variations in microgravity by using quantum physics principles based on manipulating nature at the sub-molecular level – are still in their infancy as a way of looking under the ground. But now these new results prove quantum sensors work, in time they will be able to see much clearly than any existing technology. It’s massively exciting because we still know so little about what is under the ground.

“The commercial implications of significantly improved mapping of what exists below ground level are huge, particularly for the construction industry which is likely to see reduced costs and delays to construction, rail and road projects. The quantum technology, which could ultimately be placed on a satellite to map the Earth from space, also offers improved prediction of natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions, and allows for underwater and subterranean exploration, including the discovery of natural resources and archaeological mysteries.”

Professor Kai Bongs, head of cold atom physics at the University of Birmingham and principal investigator of the UK Quantum National Hub Sensors and Timing, says:

“This is an ‘Edison moment’ in sensing that will transform society, human understanding and economies. With this breakthrough we have the potential to end reliance on poor records and luck as we explore, build and repair. In addition, an underground map of what is currently invisible is now a significant step closer, ending a situation where we know more about Antarctica than what lies a few feet below our streets.”


Company info: RSK Group