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The Truth is: SandboxAQ is Iron Man: by Brian Siegelwax

Brian Siegelwax compares the new MagNav strategy set out by SandboxAQ to Iron Man from Marvel's Cinematic Universe
By Kenna Hughes-Castleberry posted 17 May 2024

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tony Stark has a miniaturized power plant in his chest. Peaking in Iron Man 3, he has different suits he can wear depending on the mission at hand. Each suit, despite varied specialized capabilities, is powered by one source. This is analogous to the SandboxAQ MagNav strategy, albeit with one crucial difference.

The Mandarin

Modern navigation’s arch-nemesis is the longstanding GPS denial problem. Unfortunately, jamming and spoofing have switched from being sporadic to being systemic, as visualized on gpsjam.org. The problem has been increasing in frequency, severity, and coverage area.

Broader awareness of this problem is needed. Although low in probability, high impact events are possible. NIST estimates that losing GPS could cost the US alone in excess of $1B daily.

The defense community has been adapting to this problem by using a variety of GPS technologies. However, there remains a need for Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) alternatives. SandboxAQ and others believe that the problem is worth solving with quantum technologies.

The Arc Reactor

At the heart of these solutions, pun intended, are quantum sensors. Quantum sensors cannot feasibly be jammed or spoofed. They are all-weather, all-domain, day/night passive technologies that do not require any special infrastructure. They also have high integrity, since they are not generating any signals.

The difference with Iron Man technology, notwithstanding reality itself, is that SandboxAQ is constantly evaluating multiple modalities. Whereas Tony Stark upgraded his arc reactor a few times throughout the movies, SandboxAQ hypothetically may employ the equivalent of different arc reactors – different quantum sensors or suites of quantum sensors – depending on the application.

The Iron Man Suits

Analogous to how Tony Stark’s arc reactor generates power, the quantum sensor or sensors generate data. SandboxAQ asks what can be done with that data. Whereas Tony Stark builds suits to harness power for different missions, SandboxAQ builds systems to harness data for different applications. Tony Stark might have one suit optimized for deep sea missions and one suit optimized for deep space missions, while SandboxAQ might have one system for naval navigation and one system for aerospace navigation, as well as one system for both environments. 

Imagine a carrier-based aircraft operating both over sea and over land in a GPS-denied environment. No one solution is likely to be optimal under all conditions. Beyond the presence or absence of land, there may be cloud cover and other atmospheric or oceanic conditions determining the optimal solution at any given time.

Like an Iron Man suit, non-civilian systems are system-of-systems, increasing overall resilience. Using multiple technologies allows systems to address the weaknesses of other systems. SandboxAQ is taking an agnostic approach, selecting the best sensors for a particular solution, taking their measurements, and then reporting them to math-based, physics-informed software. SandboxAQ then packages these sensor-software systems as application-specific systems-of-systems.

The Cheeseburgers

Tony Stark announced to the world that he was Iron Man and went on to help form The Avengers and save the world a few times. Comparably, SandboxAQ has some altruistic intentions. 

Deploying quantum sensors shows that tangible benefits can be realized from quantum technologies, a realization they hope will benefit all quantum technologies. Also, GPS is a familiar technology, showing broad audiences that quantum applications can be understandable. Furthermore, as costs come down in the future, this particular technology could make civilian travel safer. After all, one civilian airliner may have hundreds of passengers.

The Endgame

Because the most egregious jamming and spoofing affect aerospace, and due to the rigorous theoretical literature, SandboxAQ focuses first on aerospace applications. They are experimenting with core technologies – the arc reactor analogy – that can achieve two goals: multiple use cases and scalability. MagNav uses magnetometers to collect magnetic field data from the Earth’s surface that can estimate locations based on magnetic anomaly maps. SandboxAQ needs to be able to build multiple systems – Iron Man suits – around that core.

Although MagNav is not yet in scaled production – work still needs to be done – it’s at a phase that’s on its way to production and is commercially available for testing. Readiness will actually be determined on an application-by-application basis. For aerospace applications, risk has to be removed as efficiently as possible. MagNav needs to provide what GPS provides with enough certainty to get from point A to point B.

Long-term goals include improving the systems over time, of course, but also pushing toward the economy; after all, GPS is now ubiquitous. SandboxAQ was actually working on civilian use cases before defense applications. While the military will lead the way with autonomous aircraft, this technology could lead to more autonomy in the future with commercial aircraft. PNT is particularly important for autonomous aircraft, but sensors are good at capturing data, so other uses may yet be discovered.

Work is also being done on vision-based alternatives, quantum inertial systems, and more. Referring back to the systems-of-systems approach, a quantum inertial system would complement MagNav. While any one quantum solution may not be a panacea, it may contribute to the overall solution. And while GPS is the default technology, SandboxAQ hopes to position quantum as its complement technology someday.

Tony Stark saw a suit of armor around the world. SandboxAQ sees a suite of quantum sensors around the world.

Brian N. Siegelwax is an independent Quantum Algorithm Designer and a freelance writer for Inside Quantum Technology.  He is known for his contributions to the field of quantum computing, particularly in the design of quantum algorithms. He has evaluated numerous quantum computing frameworks, platforms, and utilities and has shared his insights and findings through his writings. Siegelwax is also an author and has written books such as “Dungeons & Qubits” and “Choose Your Own Quantum Adventure”. He regularly writes on Medium about various topics related to quantum computing. His work includes practical applications of quantum computing, reviews of quantum computing products, and discussions on quantum computing concepts.

Categories: quantum computing, research, software

Tags: Brian Siegelwax, Iron Man, SandboxAQ

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