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Tech That’s Cool as [Dark] Ice

For more than 30 years Lockheed Martin has been a leader in bringing positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) technology to the world. We’re perhaps best known for our work supporting the U.S. Air Force’s Global Positioning System (GPS).

But we’re not resting on our experience – we’re constantly thinking of new technologies to serve that PNT mission.

One of the ways we’re working to augment GPS and evolve PNT is through a new technology we’re developing, a quantum magnetometer called Dark Ice.

Current GPS users get navigational assistance from a GPS receiver that triangulates their location through a series of radiofrequency signals beamed from the GPS satellite constellation. Our Dark Ice technology in development uses magnetic sensing as an alternative means of determining your location without the use of satellite signals.

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A Marvelous Magnetometer

Mike DiMario and his Dark Ice team have been sailing in uncharted scientific waters the past five years.

They’ve developed a prototype called Dark Ice – a magnetometer that uses a synthetic diamond to measure the direction and strength of nearly imperceptible magnetic field anomalies. They then overlay that data with known maps of Earth’s magnetic field to tell you precisely where you are.

Special quantum-level properties of the synthetic diamond and trapped particles in its material structure, result in the hyper-sensitive detection of magnetic field waves.

“The real advantage of this quantum-based technology is its ability to produce a true magnetic field vector, while at the same time having a very large dynamic range and bandwidth. All packaged in a very small size,” Mike explained.

Doing What No One’s Done Before

When asked what it’s been like to develop this complex, ultra-cutting-edge technology before anyone else, Mike said:

“It was like peeling an onion – with each new layer removed, the team advanced. We had no idea of the expected outcome, other than what system modeling, the laws of physics and good engineering could predict.”

He elaborated, remarking that, “The real world is not very forgiving. There was always something we could not have predicted or even thought of. The challenge was managing through that and keeping the team motivated and moving forward.”

And move forward, they are. The Dark Ice Team continues to improve magnetic navigation using this quantum technology. On top of developing this navigational capability, they’ve also demonstrated Dark Ice can harness Earth’s magnetic field to both transmit communications across barriers intended to block all traditional signals, and track moving vehicles in real-time.

That’s a first-ever moment for this kind of technology.

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What Lies Ahead

“This project was designed for times when extenuating circumstances might prohibit your use of traditional GPS signals, and you need something that is un-jammable, passive, and always available. The Earth’s magnetic field meets this description if we can adequately sense and make use of it,” Mike added.

Now that they continue to prove this capability – looking ahead, Dark Ice could very well have limitless implications for the future of magnetic sensing.

With its powerful sensing capabilities and small, 1-foot-long size, we could eventually see Dark Ice used as the most reliable way to do things like identify hard-to-find watercraft in search and rescue missions and be deployed on various aircraft on the battlefield. Navigation, search, and communications – all in one compact sensor.

It’s just one more way Lockheed Martin is ensuring that the PNT mission continues to evolve to meet future needs.