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Nomad Atomics’ gravity sensor could revolutionise ASW, minerals exploration

An Australian start-up company is poised to revolutionise the minerals exploration industry with a small device for precisely measuring gravity that is so sensitive it can detect even small ore bodies at greater depths than any other instruments in use.

The portable gravimeter developed by Canberra-based Nomad Atomics uses quantum sensing to precisely measure gravitation, but is little larger than a shoebox and rugged enough to cart around on exploration trips.

Potentially, a precise gravity sensor could also detect a submarine underwater by its gravitational signature, which would have huge strategic implications.

Nomad’s technology is based on a quantum technique called cold atom interferometry which is well understood by physicists and widely used in labs around the world, but usually requires bulky equipment that can’t be taken to the field.

The engineering behind the device – which enables it to be small as well as extremely accurate and sensitive – is unmatched by any competitors, says Nomad Atomics CEO Kyle Hardman who developed key parts of the technology at the Australian National University where he worked alongside co-founders Paul Wigley and Christian Freier.

This month the company won a sought-after venture prize at the Falling Walls science summit in Berlin, where judges noted that Nomad Atomics’ gravimeter could also used for monitoring groundwater, carbon dioxide sequestration and underground infrastructure – all by precisely measuring changes in the strength of gravity on the earth’s surface.

Dr Hardman says the next step is to develop a version of the gravimeter that works on a moving platform.

That goal is “within sight”, he says. “It could be flying on drones in two to three years.”

Another major goal for Nomad is to build accurate navigation ­systems that don’t rely on GPS signals, which are easily jammed. Jamming is occurring regularly in the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, disabling GPS.

If Nomad can make its gravitational sensor technology work on a drone, then it will also work as an accelerometer on a ship, aircraft or missile, accurately measuring changes in speed and direction. When this data is processed by a computer, it can give a precise location without using GPS signals. The demand from the military market for such a device would be enormous.

The company’s breakthrough was to successfully miniaturise it. Inside the gravimeter box is a vacuum chamber, an array of lasers, and about a billion atoms of rubidium. The lasers cool the rubidium atoms, assembling them into a little ball. Driven by gravity or acceleration, the ball moves and its movement is measured. The principle is simple enough but doesn’t, in itself, give much precision. The accuracy comes because it happens in an environment where the weird rules of quantum physics apply, which allow the measurements to be made with extreme accuracy.

The company currently has ten employers and will soon move to Melbourne to access a bigger pool of engineering and manufacturing talent. It plans to expand to about 30 employees as it builds its revenue stream from the resource industry.

”Our goal is to make enough money to scale without further investment,” Dr Hardman says.

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