Better Than GPS – Going Where No Electronic Map Has Gone Before

Keep right at the fork.  Take the first exit at the roundabout.  Recalculating.  Destination on the left.

Ultimate cosmic directional power, yet the parking garage sends you into retreat. Sigh. (Artist Interpretation of GPS satellite; image courtesy of NASA)

Admit it, you read those words in the voice of your handy GPS.  Mine’s named Stella.  She enjoys making abrupt decisions with wild abandon and no regard for my personal safety.  Yet I totally rely on her, so I allow her to treat me this way.  That’s a sign of the times.  We’ve abandoned maps in lieu of little devices that give us step-by-step instructions, leading us to our destination.

Even if that means you end up taking knee-jerk driving commands that make you look like you’re operating a car full of bees.

Still, as cruel as Stella is to me, I still rely on her for many things, so when she decides to give me the cold shoulder – for example, we go through a tunnel and she loses direction –  it sends me spiraling into a directionless panic.

So, since knowing where you are going is sort of an important thing for service members, what are the troops down range doing when they go through a tunnel?

When the maps aren’t enough and the GPS is recalculating, who you gonna call?  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency!

There’s a theme song in there, I just know it.

Many U.S. military systems, such as missiles, rely on the Global Positioning System (GPS) to provide accurate position, orientation and time information while in flight. As in, they’re looking for an accurate point-by-point while they are dropping missiles, not looking for the Cheesecake Factory in Annapolis.  So their job requires a more reliable source of strategic information.

When the GPS is inaccessible, whether as a result of a malfunction (or obvious indifference…Stella), or as a consequence of enemy action, information critical for navigation must be gathered using the missile’s on-board sensors.

DARPA’s Chip-Scale Combinatorial Atomic Navigator (C-SCAN) effort seeks an atomic inertial sensor to measure orientation in GPS-denied environments.  The type of thing that goes where no electronic map has gone before.  The kind that laughs in the face of large buildings and does not abandon you the moment you cross a large bridge.  The kind of directional equipment that will really be there for you.  Such a sensor would integrate small size, low power consumption, high resolution of motion detection, and a fast start up time into a single package.

Because this looks like it would be hard to fit on a dashboard or in a cockpit. (United States Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Mike Meares)

“Platforms such as missiles rely on GPS for a variety of information,” explained Andrei Shkel, DARPA program manager. “When GPS is not available gyroscopes provide orientation, accelerometers provide position and oscillators provide timing. The new C-SCAN effort focuses on replacing bulky gyroscopes with a new inertial measurement unit (IMU) that is smaller, less expensive due to foundry fabrication and yields better performance.”

The inertial measurement unit sought by C-SCAN will co-integrate both solid state and atomic inertial sensors into a single microsystem. This new IMU would benefit from devices with dissimilar physics, yet complementary characteristics: short startup times, and long-term, stable performance.

Basically they’re looking to build a device that’s made for warfare.  And, like any commitment-based relationship, it has to be made to last.

Before C-SCAN can be built, research is needed to explore the miniaturization and co-fabrication of atomic sensors with solid-state inertial sensors. Algorithms and architectures are sought to seamlessly co-integrate the components. Those wishing to participate in the C-SCAN effort are encouraged to review the full solicitation located at

I'd follow you anywhere, tiny snowflake-shaped directional orientation device. (Photo provided by DARPA)

C-SCAN supports the Micro-Technology for Positioning, Navigation and Timing (micro-PNT) program, which is developing micro-technology for self-contained, chip-scale inertial navigation and precision guidance that would greatly reduce the dependence on GPS while enabling uncompromising navigation and guidance capabilities for advanced munitions, various military platforms, under a wide range of operation conditions.

Hey, do you guys do personal requests?  Because I have a neutral-voiced female electro-map that needs an attitude adjustment.  And maybe a lovely singing voice.  I’d like Stella to do show tunes.

No rush.

You have arrived.


Content for this story provided by DARPA

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran an avid science fiction fan…and pretty sure she just awoke the unholy anger in her GPS.  Anybody got a map?


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