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Tiny clock meets big challenges

May 16, 2022  - By
chip-scale atomic clocks can supplement GNSS receivers to provide accurate and reliable time in GNSS-challenged environments. Photo: Microchip Technology

Chip-scale atomic clocks can supplement GNSS receivers to provide accurate and reliable time in GNSS-challenged environments. Photo: Microchip Technology

Accurate and reliable time is just as important as accurate and reliable location for a wide range of military and civilian applications — and GNSS receivers cannot provide either one when they are jammed. For timing, one solution is to supplement GNSS receivers with a miniature atomic clock. We asked Microchip Technology a few questions about their chip-scale atomic clock (CSAC) and Stewart Hampton, the company’s senior product line manager, responded.

How long was your SA65 CSAC in development before you announced it in August 2021? Typically, how often do you launch a new CSAC?

CSAC development started in 2001 under a contract from DARPA with Draper and Sandia laboratories. CSAC was first introduced to the commercial marketplace in 2011, and in 2016 we released an improved product design with an operating temperature range of –10 C° to +70 C°. Last year we released our CSAC SA65 with a wider operating temperature range, faster warm-up and improved frequency stability aimed at the defense and industrial marketplace. So, it has been about five years between major CSAC releases, but that may not be indicative of future products because we have also introduced specialized CSAC versions, such as the Low Noise CSAC (LNCSAC) in 2014 and the only commercially available radiation-tolerant CSAC (Space CSAC) in 2018.

What is the CSAC SA65’s drift rate?

Its typical drift rate is specified at <9 × 10–10 per month. Another key specification, particularly for many portable military applications, is total sensitivity of frequency to temperature (tempco) over a specified range. For the CSAC SA65, that specification is ±3 × 10–10 over the entire operating temperature range of –40 C° to +80 C °.

What are a few specific military use cases?

CSAC is designed into multiple military programs and used in a wide variety of military applications, particularly in GNSS-denied environments — including assured positioning, navigation and timing (APNT) modules, underwater unmanned and autonomous vehicles, software-defined radios, man-portable transceiver-based military communications, vehicle management computers, airborne reconnaissance/UAVs and GNSS-disciplined oscillators. It is also used in command, control, communications, computers, cyber, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C5ISR). The space CSAC variant is commonly used on low-Earth-orbit space defense payloads supporting such applications as low-latency communications networks, RF geolocation (geointelligence, or GEOINT), optical time transfer, alternative PNT satellites and Earth observation.

About the Author:


Matteo Luccio possesses 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at mluccio@gpsworld.com or 541-543-0525.

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