In 2013 a phone presentation was arranged, for me to talk for an hour with a couple dozen engineers at Raytheon. The original plan was to scrutinize the many facets and ramifications of timing in avionics. The scope expanded about halfway through, to include topics of interest to any participant. I was gratified when others raised issues that have been of major concern to me for years (in some cases, even decades).  Receiving a reminder from another professional, that I’m not alone in these concerns, prompts me to reiterate at least some aspects of the ongoing struggle — but this time citing a recent report of flight test verification

The breadth of the struggle is breathtaking. The About panel of this site offers short summaries, all confirmed by authoritative sources cited therein, describing the impact on each of four areas (satnav + air safety + DoD + workforce preparation). Shortcomings in all four areas are made more severe by continuation of outdated methods, as unnecessary as they are fundamental, Not everyone wants to hear this but it’s self-evident: conformance to custom — using decades-old design concepts (e.g., TCAS) plus procedures (e.g., position reports) and conventions (e.g., interface standards — guarantees outmoded legacy systems. Again, while my writings on this site and elsewhere — advocating a different direction — go back decades, I’m clearly not alone (e.g., recall those authoritative sources just noted). Changing more minds, a few at a time, can eventually lead to correction of shortcomings in operation.

We’re not pondering minor improvements, but dramatic ones. To realize them, don’t communicate with massaged data; put raw data on the interface. Communicate in terms of measurements, not coordinates — that’s how DGPS became stunningly successful. Even while using all the best available protection against interference, (including anti-spoof capability), follow through and maximize your design for robustness;  expect occurrences of poor GDOP &/or less than a full set of SVs instantaneously visible. Often that occurrence doesn’t really constitute loss of satnav; when it’s accompanied by history of 1-sec changes in carrier phase, those high-accuracy measurements prevent buildup of position error. With 1-sec carrier phase changes coming in, the dynamics don’t veer toward any one consistent direction; only location veers during position data deficiencies (poor GDOP &/or incomplete fixes) and, even then, only within limits allowed by that continued accurate dynamic updating. Integrity checks also continue throughout.

So then, take into account the crucial importance of precise dynamic information when a full position fix isn’t instantaneously available. Take what’s there and stop discarding it. Redefine requirements to enable what ancient mariners did suboptimally for many centuries — and we’ve done optimally for over a half-century.  Covariances combined with monitored residuals can indicate quality in real time. Aircraft separation means maintaining a stipulated relative distance between them, irrespective of their absolute positions and errors in their absolute positions. None of this is either mysterious or proprietary, and none of this imposes demands for huge budgets or scientific breakthroughs — not even corrections from ground stations.

A compelling case arises from cumulative weight of all these considerations. Parts of the industry have begun to address it. Ohio University has done flight testing (mentioned in the opening paragraph here) that validates the concepts just summarized. Other investigations are likely to result from recent testing of ADSB. No claim is intended that all questions have been answered, but — clearly — enough has been raised to warrant a dialogue with those making decisions affecting the long term.

Press Release


James L Farrell launches his new Kindle book – GPS Made Simple


James L Farrell, author of  GNSS Aided Navigation & Tracking & Integrated Aircraft Navigation has just launched his new book on the Amazon platform Kindle. The book is now available for Android tablets, iPads and of course Kindle Fire. The book sells for  $3.99 and available in the  Kindle Store.



Book Description

Publication Date: April 8, 2013
This presentation provides a basic understanding of GPS for those trying to learn it for the first time. Although satellite navigation now includes constellations from Europe and Asia, all have enough in common to focus on GPS for introductory discussion. Material was selected and organized with a a learner’s perspective in mind. for a “straight-to-the-point” exposition with little or no mathematics and, rather than an extensive bibliography, a few few URLs that can be followed towards a wealth of further sources for those interested.

Product Details

  • File Size: 592 KB
  • Publisher: VIGIL, Inc. (April 8, 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00CA4N4Y8
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Enabled


Free-inertial navigation uses accelerometers and gyros alone, unaided. For that purpose pioneers of yesteryear developed a variety of techniques, ranging from a 2-sample approach (NASA TND-5384, 1969) by Jordan to his and various others’ higher-order algorithms to reduce errors from noncommutativity of finite rotations in the presence of coning (and/or pseudoconing). The methods showed considerable insight and produced successful operation. Since it’s always good to have “another tool in the toolbox” I’ll mention here an alternative. What I describe here isn’t being used but, with today’s processing capabilities, could finally become practical. The explanation will require some background information; I’ll try to be brief.


A very old investigation (“Performance of Strapdown Inertial Attitude Reference Systems,” AIAA Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, Sept 1966, pp 1340-1347) used the usual small-angle representation for attitude error expressed in the vehicle frame. With that frame rotating at a rate omega the derivative of that vector therefore contains a cross product of itself crossed with omega.  One contributor to that product is a lag effect from omega premultiplied by a diagonal matrix consisting of delays (e.g., transport lags equated to reciprocals of gyro bandwidths). Mismatch among those diagonal elements produces drift components with nonzero average, e.g., the x-component of the cross product is easily seen to be
aaaaaaaaaaa    (difference between y and z lags) times (omega_y) times (omega_z)
Even with zero-average (e.g., oscillatory) angular rates, that product has nonzero average due to rectification.  I then characterized the lags as delays from computation rather than from the gyros, with the lag differences now proportional to nonuniformities among RMS angular rate components along vehicle axes, and average products proportional to cross-correlation coefficients of the angular rate components. That was easy; I had a simple model enabling me to calculate the error due to finite gyro sampling rates producing finite rotation increments that don’t commute.


A theoretical model is only that until it is validated. I had to come up with a validation method with mid-1960s computational limitations. Solution came from a basic realization: performance doesn’t degrade from what’s happening but from belief in occurrences that aren’t happening. The first-ever report of coning (Goodman and Robinson, ASME Trans, June 1958) came from a gimballed platform that was believed to be stable while it was actually coning. If the true coning motion they described had been known and taken into account, then their high drift rates never would have occurred. The reason they weren’t taken into account then was narrow gimbal servo bandwidth; the gyros responded to the coning frequency but the platform servos didn’t. Now consider strapdown with the inverse problem: pseudoconing — a vehicle believed to experience coning when it isn’t. That will fall victim to the same departure of perception from reality. If you gave the same Goodman and Robinson coning motion to their strapdown gyro triad and sampled them every nanosecond, the effect from noncommutativity wouldn’t be noticeable.


Armed with that insight I then chose rotational dynamics with a closed form solution. Although rotations about fixed vehicle axes produced no coning, the pseudoconing was severe, with the apparent (reported-from-gyros) rotation axis changing radically within fractions of a millisecond; too fast for the 10 kHz data rate used in that computation.  The cross product formulation was then validated by making extensive sets of runs, always comparing two time histories:

* a closed form solution for a true direction cosine matrix corresponding to a vehicle experiencing a sinusoidal omega
* an apparent direction cosine matrix, obtained by brute-force but meticulous formation from processing gyro outputs at finite rates with quantization, time lags, and a wide variety of error sources.

That “bull-by-the-horns” computation allowed extended runs (up to a million attitude iterations) to be made for a wide range of angular rate frequencies, axis directions, and combinations of gyro input errors (steady, random, motion-sensitive, etc.). Deviation of apparent attitude from closed-form truth was consistently in close conformance to the analytical model, for a host of error sources. I have to admit that this “bull-by-the-horns” approach gave me an advantage of finding out answers before I understood the reasons for them. The cross-product analytical model didn’t come from my vision; it came after much head-scratching with answers computed from dozens of runs. A breakthrough came from the sensitivity, completely unanticipated, to angular acceleration about gyro output axes — clear in retrospect but not initially. After these experiences it occurred to me: if cross-axis covariances were known, the dominant contributor to errors — including noncommutativity — could be counteracted. I noted that on page 1342 of that old AIAA paper.


Finally I can describe the alternative means of compensating the dominant computational error. Description begins with the reason why it would be useful. Earlier I mentioned that many authors developed very good algorithms to reduce errors from noncommutativity of finite rotations in the presence of coning and/or pseudoconing. All that history, plus more detailed presentation of everything discussed here, can be found in Chapters 3 and 4 of my 1976 book plus Addendum 7.A of my 2007 book. A supreme irony upstages much of the work from those brilliant authors: without accounting for gyro frequency response characteristics, the intended benefit can be lost — or the “compensation” can even become counterproductive (Mark and Tazartes, AIAA Journal of Guidance, Control, & Dynamics, Jul-Aug 2006, pp 641-647). As if those burdens weren’t enough, the adjustment’s complexity — as shown in that paper — can be extensive. So :  that motivates usage of a simpler procedure.


By now I’ve put so much explanation into preparing its description that not much more is needed to define the method. Today’s signal-processing boards enable the requisite covariances to be repetitively computed. Then just form the vector cross product already described and subtract the result from the gyro increments ahead of attitude updating. So much for coning and pseudoconing — but I’m not quite finished yet. The paper just cited leads to another consideration: even if we successfully removed all of the error theoretically arising from inexact computation, significant improvement in free-inertial performance would require more. Operation in the presence of vibrations would necessitate reduction of other motion-sensitive errors. Gyro degradations from rotations, for example, would have to be compensated — and that includes a multitude of components. For that topic you can begin with the discussion of gyro mounting misalignment following that up with the tables in Chapter 4 of my 1976 book and Addendum 4.B of my 2007 book.

Life before GPS

Before GPS took over so many operations by storm (e.g., navigation,tracking, timing, surveying, etc.), designers had access to other — far less capable — provisions.  That condition forced our hands; to derive maximum benefit from what was available, we had to extract full information content from those provisions.  Now that GPS is subjected to challenges (aging, jamming, spoofing, etc.), some of those older methods are receiving increased scrutiny.  Recently I’ve received renewed interest in areas I analyzed decades ago.  Old publications from two of those areas are discussed here: 1) attitude determination and 2) nav integration.

“Attitude Determination by Kalman Filtering” is the title of three documents I had published.  In reverse sequence they are:
1) Automatica (IFAC Journal), v6 1970, pp. 419-430,
2) my Ph.D. dissertation (Univ. of Maryland, 1967),
3) NASA CR-598, Sept., 1966.
As indicated by the last reference, the work was the result of a contractual study sponsored by NASA (specifically Goddard Space Flight Center – GSFC – in Greenbelt Maryland).  I was working for Wetinghouse Defense and Space Center at the time.  The proposal I had written to win this contract cited my work prior to then, in both modern estimation (“Simulation of a Minimum Variance OrbitalNavigation System,” AIAA JSR v 3 Jan 1966 pp. 91-98) and attitude computation (“Performance of Strapdown Inertial Attitude Reference Systems,” AIAA JSR v 3 Sept 1966, pp. 1340-1347).  Let me hasten to explain the dates of those Journal publications: each followed its inclusion at an AIAA-sponsored conference, about a year earlier.

By the mid-1960s there was an appreciable amount of validation for Kalmen filtering applied to determination of orbits (that track record was convincing) but not yet for attitude.  A GSFC-sponsored investigation was then planned — the very first one for attitude using modern estimation methods.  GSFC management understandably wanted that contractual investigation to be performed by someone with demonstrable experience in both Kalman filtering and rotational dynamics.  In those days that combination was rare; the Westinghouse proposal was chosen as the winner.  At the time of that study, provisions realistically available for attitude updating consisted of mediocre-accuracy items such as magnetometers and horizon scanners– not bad but not spectacular either.
All that was of course before GPS weighed in, with its opportunity to reveal attitude from phase differences between antennas spaced at known distances apart.  That vastly superior capability effectively reduced earlier crude measurements to relative obscurity.  A directly parallel situation occurred in connection with navigation; the book that first tied together several facets of advancement in that field (integration, strapdown inertial, modern estimation with  acceptance of all data sources, multimode operation, extension to tracking, clear exposition of all commonly used representations of attitude, etc.) was”pre-GPS” (1976), and consequently regarded as less relevant. Timing can be decisive — that’s no one’s fault.

The item just noted — attitude representation — is worth further discussion here.  Unlike many other sources, the 1976 book offered an opportunity to use quaternion properties without any need to learn a specialized quaternion algebra.  A literature search, however, will point primarily to various sources (of necessity, later than 1976).that benefit from the superior performance offered through GPS usage. Again, in view of GPS as a game-changer, that is not necessarily improper.  Most publications on attitude determination don’t cite the first-ever investigation, sponsored by GSFC, for that innocent reason.

The word beginning that last sentence (“Most”) has an exception.  One author, widely quoted as an authority (especially on quaternions), did cite the original work — dismissing it as “ad-hoc” — while using an exact copy of the sensitivity matrix elements pubished in my original investigation (the three references cited at the start of this blog).
While I obviously didn’t invent either quaternions or the Kalman filter, there was another thing I didn’t do: fail to credit, in my publications, pre-existing sources that contributed to my findings. Publication of the material cited here, I’ve been told, paved the way for understanding and insight to many who followed. No one owes me anything for that; an analyst’s work, truthfully and realistically presented, is what the analyst has to offer.

It is worth pointing out that both the attitude determination study and the 1976 book cover another facet of rotational analysis absent from many other related publications: dynamics — in the sense of physics.  Whereas modern estimation lumps time-variations of the state together into one all-encompassing “dynamic” model, classical physics makes a separation: Kinematics defines the relation between position, rates, and accelerations.  Dynamics determines translational accelerations resulting from forces or rotational accelerations resulting from torques.

Despite absence of GPS from my early (1960s/70s) investigations, one feature that can still make them useful for today’s analysts is the detailed characterization of torques acting — in very different ways — on spinning and gravity-gradient satellites, plus their effects on rotational motion. Many of the later studies focused on the rotational kinematics, irrespective of those torques and their consequences. Similarly, the “minimal-math”approach to explaining integrated navigation has enabled many to grasp the concepts.  Printed testimony to that effect, from courses I taught decades ago, is augmented by more recent source noted near the end of another page shown on this site.


Tracking acceleration dynamics by GNSS, radar, imaging

My 2007 book on GPS and GNSS (GNSS Aided Navigation & Tracking), as its title implies, involves both navigation and tracking. This discussion describes the latter, covered in the longest chapter of the book (Chapter 9).  In addition to the flight-validated algorithms for navigation (processing of inertial sensor data, integration with GPS/GNSS, integrity, etc.), this text offers extensive coverage of tracking. Formulations are given for a variety of modes, in 2-D (e.g., for runway incursion prevention or ships) and 3-D (in-air), using GPS/GNSS and/or other sensors (e.g., radar, optical).  Position and velocity vectors are formed, in some operations joined by some or all components of acceleration.

This author was fortunate to be “at-the-right-places at-the-right-times” when a need arose to address each of the topics covered.  As a result, the words of one reviewer — that the book is

…………….. “teeming with insights that are hard to find or unavailable elsewhere.”

applies to tracking as well as to navigation.  The book identifies subtleties that arise in specific applications (aircraft, ships, land vehicles, satellites, long-range or short-range projectiles, reentry vehicles, missiles, … ). In combination with a variety of possible conditions affecting sensor suite and location (air-to-air; air-to-ground; air-to-sea surface; surface-to-air, etc. — with measurements associated with distance or direction or both; shared or not shared among participants who may communicate from different positions), it is not surprising that striking contrasts can arise, influencing the characterization and approaches used.  The array of formulations offered, while fully accounting for marked differences among operations, nevertheless exploits an underlying commonality to the maximum possible extent.

Tracking dynamics of aircraft, missiles, ships, satellites, projectiles, …

Formulations described in Chapter 9 were used for tracking of both aircraft and missiles, concurrently, through usage of an agile beam radar.  For another example, air-to-surface operations subdivide into air-to-ground and vessel tracking from the air.  That latter case constrains tracked objects’ altitudes to mean sea level — a substantial benefit since it obviates the need for elevation measurements, which are subject to large errors from refraction (bearing and range measurements, much less severely degraded, suffice). Air-to-ground tracking, by contrast, further subdivides into stationary and moving targets; the former potentially involves imaging possibilities (by real or synthetic aperture) while the latter — if not being imaged by inverse SAR — separates its signature from clutter via doppler.

Reentry vehicles, quite different from other track operations, present a unique set of “do’s” and “don’ts” owing to high-precision range measurements combined with much larger cross-range errors (because of proportionality to extreme distances involved).  Pitfalls from uncertain axial direction of “pancake” shaped one-sigma error ellipsoids must be avoided.  A counterexample, having angle observations only (without distance measurements), is also addressed.  Orbit determination is unique in still another way, often permitting “patched-conic” modeling for its dynamics.  A program based on Lambert’s theorem provides initial trajectories from two position vectors with the time interval separating them.

Those operations and more are addressed with most observations from radar or other (e.g., infrared imaging) sensors rather than satellite measurements.  That of course applies to tracked objects carrying no squitters. Friendlies tracking one another, however, open the door for using GNSS data.  Those subjects plus numerous supporting functions are discussed at some length in Chapter 9.  Despite very different dynamics applicable to various operations, the underlying commonality (Chapter 2) connects the error propagation traits in their estimation algorithms and also — though widely unrecognized — short-term INS error propagation under cruise conditions (Chapters 2 and 5).  Support operations such as synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and transfer alignment are described in the chapter Addendum.

The book on GPS and GNSS


Check out a preview of “GNSS Aided Navigation & Tracking” (click here)

GNSS Aided Navigation & Tracking

– Inertially Augmented or Autonomous
By James L. Farrell
American Literary Press. 2007. Hardcover. 280 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1-56167-979-9

This text offers concise guidance on integrating inertial sensors with GPS and also its international version (global navigation satellite system; GNSS) receivers plus other aiding sources. Primary focus is on low-cost inertial measurement units (IMUs) with  frequent updates, but  other functions (e.g., tracking in numerous modes) and sensors (e.g., radar) are also addressed.

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Dr. Farrell has many decades of experience in this subject area; in the words of one reviewer, the book is “teeming with insights that are hard to find or unavailable elsewhere.”

An engineer and former university instructor, Farrell has made a number of contributions to multiple facets of  navigation.  He is also the author of Integrated Aircraft Navigation (1976; five hard cover printings; now in paperback) plus over eighty journal or conference manuscripts and various columns.

Frequent aiding-source updates, in applications that require precise velocity rather than extreme precision in position, enables integration to be simplified. All aspects of integration are covered, all the way from  raw measurement pre-processing to final 3-D position/velocity/attitude, with far more thorough backup and integrity provisions.  Extensive experimental results  illustrate the attainable accuracies (cm/s RMS  velocities in three-dimensions) during flight under extreme vibration.

The book on GPS and GNSS provides several flight-validated formulations and algorithms not currently in use because of their originality. Considerable opportunity is therefore offered in multiple areas including
* full use of highly intermittent ambiguous carrier phase
* rigorous integrity for separate SVs
* unprecedented robustness and situation awareness
* high performance from low cost IMUs
* “cookbook” steps
* new interoperability features
* new insights for easier implementation.

Discussion of these traits can be seen in the excerpt (over 100 pages) from the  link at the top of this page.