Los Angeles: Scientists have developed the world's smallest optical gyroscope -- device that helps vehicles, drones, and wearable and handheld electronic devices know their orientation in three-dimensional space. The new gyroscope, described in the journal Nature Photonics, is 500 times smaller than the current state-of-the-art device.
Originally, gyroscopes were sets of nested wheels, each spinning on a different axis, said researchers from the California Institute of Technology in the US. However, today's cellphones have microelectromechanical sensor (MEMS), the modern-day equivalent, which measures changes in the forces acting on two identical masses that are oscillating and moving in opposite directions.
These MEMS gyroscopes are limited in their sensitivity, so optical gyroscopes have been developed to perform the same function but with no moving parts and a greater degree of accuracy using a phenomenon called the Sagnac effect. The Sagnac effect, named after French physicist Georges Sagnac, is an optical phenomenon rooted in Einstein's theory of general relativity.
The smallest high-performance optical gyroscopes available today are bigger than a golf ball and are not suitable for many portable applications, researchers said. As optical gyroscopes are built smaller and smaller, so too is the signal that captures the Sagnac effect, which makes it more and more difficult for the gyroscope to detect movement, they said.
Up to now, this has prevented the miniaturisation of optical gyroscopes. Caltech engineers led by Professor Ali Hajimiri developed a new optical gyroscope that is 500 times smaller than the current state-of-the-art device, yet they can detect phase shifts that are 30 times smaller than those systems. The new gyroscope achieves improved performance by using a new technique called "reciprocal sensitivity enhancement." In this case, "reciprocal" means that it affects both beams of the light inside the gyroscope in the same way.
Since the Sagnac effect relies on detecting a difference between the two beams as they travel in opposite directions, it is considered nonreciprocal. Inside the gyroscope, light travels through miniaturised optical waveguides (small conduits that carry light, that perform the same function as wires do for electricity). Imperfections in the optical path that might affect the beams (for example, thermal fluctuations or light scattering) and any outside interference will affect both beams similarly.