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What Does the Future Hold for Chip Scale Atomic Clocks?

by Rocky C Rhodes

posted in Computers and Technology

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Have you ever wondered how the Internet keeps track of time? Or what keeps GPS systems running accurately? Well, there is a little piece of technology right at the heart of it all, known as the chip scale atomic clock or CSAC. And this little clock is the heartbeat that powers our modern digital world. This is your guide to everything you need to know about atomic clocks, what they are, and how they will change in the future.
The chip atomic clock was developed in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the agency responsible for designing and engineering most of our military's most complex gadgets. The engineers behind this high-tech timepiece knew that in order for computers and devices around the world to agree on time, they would need a reference clock small enough to fit inside a laptop, mobile device, or any other device that requires time synchronization.
The term chip scale refers to the size of the clock being no more than a large computer chip. In fact, the clock itself weighs only 35 grams (nearly as much as $1.50 in quarters) and only consumes 120 mW of electricity. Compared to previous, rack-mounted versions of the atomic clock, this is a reduction of three magnitudes in terms of size to power ratio.
Additionally, the atomic clock is more accurate and stable than other traditional timepieces. For instance, before the atomic clock was in wide use, crystal oscillators were used to keep time. However, the atomic clock has a great advantage over this early form because it uses far less power. In fact, when it was developed, the clock was considered such a scientific breakthrough that it was added to The Smithsonian's permanent collection.
While it might not seem obvious, the use of CSACs has a plethora of benefits. For example, patrols of soldiers in the field make use of a back-pack sized radio jammer which prevents radio-controlled explosive devices from detonating. CSACs are essential to this process, keeping the radio signals in time to jam unwanted radio waves without fail.
The military also use CSACs to maintain time on board a drone aircraft. As drones are pushed to their limits geographically, they may fly to places with low or no GPS signal. The clock allows the drone's on board computer to keep functioning and maintaining steady contact with its technician.
Additionally, atomic clocks have been used in the discovery of underwater oil, gas, and mineral resources. When surveying the sea floor for possible well-sites, a ship will drop a fleet of sensors that have atomic clocks built in to them. The sensors then track an underwater sonic pulse and measure how long it takes to travel through the earth's crust under the ocean floor. And due to the clock's precision timing, help create a map of the underwater geology in that area.
Without question CSACs will continue to improve as digital tech continues to drive the need for accurate timing. In fact, many projects are already in the works to push this technology to its limits. For instance, NASA is testing the clocks in a series of new bowling-ball sized satellites that will be deployed in an array to drive down costs in space experimentation.
There is no doubt that as this need to increase accuracy and reduce both the physical size and power consumption of the device, hundreds of more applications and solutions to problems will be discovered via the use of a chip scale atomic clock.
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