Can you give us a brief history of the company and its heritage for timing and clocking technology?
Orolia was created in 2006 as a spin-off of Temex (a company focused on time and frequency components) specialized in timing and synchronization equipment. At the time of incorporation, Orolia was a $14 million company with 70 employees and a portfolio of atomic clocks and synchronization equipment. Timing and clocking technology was the essence of the company, the name Orolia itself coming from Horloge/Orologio (French/Italian for Clock) and Horology (the science of time keeping).
How did you acquire expertise and presence in the U.S. market?
Less than one year after incorporation, Orolia completed a successful IPO on the NYSE Euronext Paris stock exchange and acquired Spectracom Inc., a U.S. company based in Rochester, NY specializing in time servers. This transformational acquisition doubled the size of Orolia and gave it its Europe-U.S. DNA that we have cultivated and leveraged ever since through 10 additional acquisitions, of which four in North America. Accessing the U.S. market was of strategic importance for us as 70% of the world market for timing and synchronization is in North America and also because the U.S. is the largest Aerospace, Defense and Government market, where our technologies are critical.
What major markets and applications do your products address?
Over the last 10 years, we have built around our core timing and synchronization business a comprehensive portfolio of resilient positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) solutions. Our products allow customers to operate their PNT-critical applications in the most challenging environments, including in the absence of GPS or other global navigation satellite systems, which are the most widely used PNT data services for such applications. Our main market segment is Aerospace, Defense and Government, which represents about 2/3 of our revenue. We provide resilient time and frequency and PNT sources as well as PNT simulation capabilities to our government customers, who need to maintain continuity of PNT service in the presence of GNSS jamming and spoofing for their radar, telecommunication or C4ISR systems. We are also the supplier of space atomic clocks for the Galileo GNSS and the Indian regional navigation system NAVIC. The other third of our business is related to resilient timing and synchronization capabilities for critical commercial infrastructure such as data centers, financial trading systems, telecommunication networks, transportation, etc.
Can you tell us the distinguishing features of your new mRO-50 miniature atomic clock and its applications?
The mRO-50 is the next generation of what has been called Chip Scale Atomic Clocks (CSAC). This generation has 10x improvement in stability over the first generation, as well as a wider thermal range, quicker lock and greater reliability. It consumes slightly more power (~400 mW) than the traditional CSACs, but still much less than a conventional atomic clock and less than even a high-end crystal oscillator (OCXO). Moreover, it comes in an OCXO standard package, making it a drop-in replacement for many existing designs to increase stability by 100x over an OCXO. With an identical footprint and much lower power consumption, replacing an OCXO is an easy design upgrade when time or frequency stability is at a premium. The added cost can be as little as ~$1,000 depending on the requirements. It is designed for a variety of Aerospace, Military, Telecommunication and Critical Infrastructure applications and includes low phase noise options for communications and radar applications.
What technology has enabled the drastic size reduction of atomic clocks?
Advances in low power semiconductor laser technology, specifically Vertical Cavity Surface Emitting Lasers (VCSEL) allowed for the drastic reduction in power consumption. We used several different and innovative techniques to reduce size and power, and to improve manufacturing yields and reduce overall cost. Most notably, our patented method of using a single component to both heat the rubidium atoms and to interrogate their microwave emissions yields the high performance in such a small package.
What commercial applications would find this technology useful and why?
- Time synchronization – wireless telecom, the power grid, and data centers all need to synchronize their systems to a single, universal time and frequency standard. Many use GNSS, but they still need to operate even if the GNSS signal is interrupted. Therefore, they use a Holdover Oscillator which is time and frequency phase locked to GNSS when available. This process is called Disciplining. When GNSS is not available, the disciplined holdover oscillator still provides accurate time and frequency for a period of time. How long a period is determined by the quality of the oscillator. Previously, in many cases, only an OCXO-type oscillator was practical but now, with the new mini rubidium, we expect more of these applications will transition to atomic clocks.
- Navigation – stable time is an integral part of most navigation systems. Radars, or any microwave ranging system, especially a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), require a stable Local Oscillator (LO). The high stability of the mini rubidium in a low SWAP, low phase noise package means higher ranging accuracy and longer integration times which can also translate into better sensitivity and resolution.
- Communication systems also need a stable, low noise LO. One use case in particular that benefits from a high stability LO is Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) network sync. In a TDMA network, a master station typically provides time sync by sending a sync packet periodically. The frequency of this transmission is determined by how long the network participants can remain in sync autonomously before needing another sync packet. The better their LO is, the longer they can go without re-syncing. Transmitting a sync packet wastes bandwidth and uses precious battery power in a mobile system. In military systems, unnecessary transmissions need to be avoided even more to avoid enemy detection. An ultra-stable LO is very desirable in these situations for efficiency and Low Probability of Detection or Intercept (LPD/LPI). Another use case is secure, encrypted communications which often use time sync to a periodically change encryption keys.
- Unmanned Autonomous Systems (UAS) need to navigate and communicate, benefiting from the advantages described above, but low SWAP and cost are even more important here. Also, many carry payloads which require a stable LO too.
- Undersea and seismic exploration require a network of sonar sensors that often cannot be physically interconnected and therefore must operate autonomously, often on batteries, and maintain phase sync for long periods of time. A low-cost, low-SWAP atomic clock is ideal for this application.
- Space applications – PNT capability is being added to LEO satellites (more on that in Q10).
For your GNSS products, how do you protect them against jamming and spoofing?
We take a multi-layered approach since there is no one magic bullet to combat this problem. Starting with the antenna, we use directional antennas to focus the beams on the satellite signal and away from the interference. Anti-jam antennas range from simple, fixed pattern ones to complex, multi-element, Controlled Radiation Pattern Antennas (CRPA). Next, we apply filtering techniques, including tracking DSP filters which blank out swept narrowband interferers, which are the most common type of the illegal low-cost devices purchased on the internet. Next, we use detection algorithms to determine if the signal is authentic or fake, and to detect jamming and interference early, before it corrupts the PNT solution. Lastly, and most importantly, we use multiple alternative PNT sources that are diverse and redundant to create a composite PNT solution with high integrity and availability. See https://www.orolia.com/products/interference-detection-mitigation for more information.
What is resilient positioning, navigation and timing (PNT)?
Resiliency means having PNT information at all times for critical operations, not just when GPS is available. It means having multiple PNT sensors and knowledge about their integrity so the right sensor or combination of sensors can be used in a particular situation. It means having redundant, diverse sensors for high availability. It means having the precision and accuracy you need, always. It means having PNT information you can bet your life on.
How has Orolia been involved in Space programs?
Orolia is proud to be the atomic clock provider for Galileo and the Indian regional navigation system NAVIC. Our Swiss-based atomic clocks division provides both the Passive Hydrogen Maser (PHM) physics package and the Rubidium Atomic Frequency Standards (RAFS) for all the Galileo satellites. The PHM is the most accurate and stable atomic clock in space today, and the first and only one of its kind. SpectraTime also produces quartz-based oscillators for space applications, used in many communications and sensing satellites.
We are also proud of our contributions to deep space exploration. Our active hydrogen maser technology was used, e.g., in creating the photograph of the first black hole ever taken last year. To peer into deep space requires creating a composite image from radio telescopes all over the world. Their sensors must be perfectly synchronized using the most accurate atomic clocks available. These observatories came to us to create their Event Horizon Telescope, the first ever.
What future products and technologies are on your roadmap?
We are excited about the prospects of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites being used to augment GNSS for PNT purposes. Our partner Satelles Inc. has pioneered this concept with STL – Satellites Time and Location. It provides an encrypted signal ~30 dB stronger than GNSS which combats both spoofing and jamming. Several organizations have plans to launch more constellations of 100s and even 1000s of LEO satellites. This offers the opportunity to add PNT capability inherently into these satellites, prior to launch, providing accuracies rivaling GNSS but without the same vulnerabilities of its weak signals.
The next generation of GNSS receivers are coming out with multi-frequency capability and include the type of anti-jam and anti-spoof technology we have pioneered in our current products. We see this trend as bringing resiliency to smaller, less costly PNT systems in the future.
The advancement of MEMS Inertial Measurement Units (IMU) shows no sign of abating in the continued reduction of SWAP and cost, and improved accuracy. We anticipate Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) with tactical grade accuracies to be available for low-cost, commercial applications very soon.
Precise time distribution over fiber networks is improving with High Accuracy Precision Time Protocol (HA PTP). This method is also sometimes colloquially referred to as “White Rabbit.” Nanosecond level time and frequency sync will be possible as HA PTP equipment is deployed in many packet-based IP networks.
Crowd-sourced location over networks, including 5G, shows promise as an alternative or supplemental method to traditional PNT. The concept assumes you are on a network connected to many other nodes, some of which have good PNT information. If they share their PNT information with you and you have some measure of your proximity to them – via two-way time delay measurement, signal strength indication, angle of arrival, etc. – then you can begin to infer your own position and time from these multiple measurements. The more participants on the network, the better your PNT accuracy will be and the faster you converge on a solution. It also provides an ideal integrity check of any existing PNT sensors like GNSS.