A new $8.7 million project will see Australian researchers and industry partners come together to design and manufacture the world’s most precise, compact and cost-effective gyroscope.

The navigation and safety of autonomous cars is reliant on ultra high-performance gyroscopes, which can also enhance the precision of drones and correct the course of high-speed satellites.

While accurate positioning is a critical function in industries such as transport, infrastructure and space, current technical solutions are expensive, large or energy hungry.

The new project will be led by navigation system manufacturer Advanced Navigation, and features RMIT University, the Australian National University (ANU) as research partners along with commercial partner Corridor Insights. It’s hoped the result will cut the cost of ultra high-performance gyroscopes by 85 per cent.

The project has been supported through a $2.8 million Cooperative Research Centre Projects (CRC-P) grant to Advanced Navigation, announced by Federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews.

The CRC-P grant enables an $8.7 million total project investment (cash and in-kind) to deliver technology that shrinks both cost and size to allow new commercial applications that have previously never been possible.

Chris Shaw, CEO of Advanced Navigation, says the project will take groundbreaking theoretical research through to commercialisation, demonstrating Australia’s capability across the advanced manufacturing pipeline.

“This project will establish Australia has a leading manufacturer of high-performance, cost-effective navigation solutions,” he says.

“Collaborating with some of our nation’s top researchers, we will be exploring the complete manufacturing pipeline – from basic microchip components, sophisticated signal processing, system integration and real-world application.”

According to Shaw, the landmark partnership will deliver world-class technology and showcase the amazing opportunities for a new home-grown, high-tech manufacturing industry in Australia.

Used to measure orientation and rotational motion, modern gyroscopes can be built with such sensitivity they are accurate to the millimetre and can detect the Earth’s rotation.

However, the size and cost remain the biggest challenges for wider commercial use; the price of one high-performance unit has remained about $US20,000 for a decade, while standard devices are still too bulky for easy integration into many potential applications.

To increase cost-effectiveness and reduce size, the new project brings together leading-edge optical physicals from ANU with innovative photonic chips developed at RMIT.

A high-performance gyroscope contains about 1km of optical fibres wound around a spool. Laser beams inside the fibres are split in two and sent in opposite directions.

By measuring where the light reconnects and looking at the differences in how long it takes for the light beams to travel, the gyroscope can determine position and movement with pinpoint precision.

Researchers at ANU have been adapting an optical measurement technique known as digital interferometry that can detect the tiniest of changes between the two light waves, isolating the gyroscope signal from background noise.

Distinguished Professor Arnan Mitchell, leader of RMIT’s Integrated Photonics and Applications Centre (InPAC) says the equipment needed to detect those changes would normally take up a large bench in a laboratory.

“The clever signal processing developed at ANU allows us to tell apart tiny signals from noise, and our photonic chip technology enables all that functionality to fit on a chip the size of a fingernail.”

The photonic chips will be developed by the InPAC team at RMIT, which has leading-edge facilities for designing and printing microchips filled with light.

“By compressing the light detection technology onto a photonic chip we can shrink ultra high-performance gyroscopes from the size of a bread box to the size of a coffee cup,” Mitchell says.

ANU photonics researcher Associate Professor Jong Chow says the miniscule light inconsistencies detected through digital interferometry could have mammoth flow-on effects.

“Separating a tiny blip of noise from an actual signal can be the difference between a satellite avoiding a meteorite or crashing into it, or an automated car swerving to prevent a collision,” Chow says.

The global market for high performance gyroscopes in the fields of autonomous infrastructure inspection or autonomous vehicle navigation is expected to reach $US13.7 billion by 2024.

Commercial partner Corridor Insights, which develops automated hardware and software solutions that enable road, rail or energy networks to automate inspections and predict failures, will pilot and test the new gyroscopes for defect detection and management of rail networks in Australia.

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