A scientific breakthrough in a Ministry of Defence research project is paving the way for scanners that will one day be able see through walls and under the ground.
The scientists including experts at the MoD’s Porton Down labs developed a new device that can detect tiny fluctuations in gravity.
The gravity scanner which was revealed in a BBC Horizon documentary, can detect tiny changes in gravity, by using lasers to freeze atoms in position. The device could also lead to sensors that are immune to jamming or stealth technology designed to beat conventional systems like radar.
Neil Stansfield, from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), which is responsible for the research, told the Telegraph on Wednesday that the scanner freezes atoms with lasers and then gauges how they are affected by the gravitational pull of objects close to them. This can apparently help create a 3D map of an area.
Stansfield told the newspaper the scanners could have a number of advantages.
“Seeing underground is an obvious one. From a national security perspective, the potential is obvious if you can see caves and tunnels,” he said. It’s also claimed that the device is impossible to jam or confuse because it does not “send out waves” of any kind.
“We are detecting the gravitational influence on an object. There’s nothing that we are sending out that can be interfered with,” Stansfield said.
Non-military uses could include helping road workers find buried pipes.
Stansfield told the Telegraph that the technology, while not ready for use currently, would be fully functional sooner than people think.
“I think until about five years ago, this was seen as laboratory stuff and it will be 20 or 30 years before we can harness this,” he said.
It has also been argued that gravity technology could come to replace global positioning systems (GPS), which are vulnerable to electronic attacks like jamming.
Gravity navigation, known as quantum sensing, remains an experimental field, according to experts. However, a recent DSTL paper says that the technology has “the potential to enhance existing, or enable new defense capabilities including positioning, navigation, communications, control and sensing.”
The claim that gravity scanners are immune to jamming comes at a time when a covert technology debate is underway.
As recently as Tuesday it was reported that UK infantry soldiers had field-tested a new stealth material at Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the US military’s experimental warfare facility.
The material, called Vatec, would be used in camouflage clothing and to help build hides for teams of snipers.
However, William Boothby, a former air force officer and lawyer, argued in a study published in the journal Weapons and the Law of Armed Conflict in March that the new systems may breach the laws of war.
“A combatant whose weapon is rendered invisible by its coating is arguably not complying with the minimal requirements [of carrying a weapon openly],” Boothby claims.
Such a move could leave the disguised combatant liable to what is termed a Prohibition of Perfidy under Article 37 of the Geneva Convention. It relates to a form of deception whereby one actor promises to act in good faith with the clear intention of scrapping that promise once its enemy is exposed.