Let me begin with a quote worth repeating — “Do we really need to wait for a catastrophe before taking action against GNSS vulnerabilities ?” — and follow with an extension of scope beyond.

It’s encouraging to see LinkedIn discussions recognizing ADSB limitations that preclude dependable collision avoidance capability – but that recognition needs to be far more widespread. The limitations are both severe and multifaceted including, in addition to vulnerability from inadequate security,
* accuracy goals based on present position instead of the monumentally more important relative velocity — ADSB allows 10 meter/sec velocity error (!), without characterization as vectorial or relative or probabilistic.
* the glaring but near-universal flaw of sharing coordinates, thereby failing to exploit what made differential operation spectacularly successful: work with individual measurements separately.
Note that these deficiencies existed long before the emergence of unmanned vehicles. The need to correct them is as fundamental as it is urgent. I’ve communicated these concerns over and over, most recently receiving a gratifying response from my June 11 presentation to the satnav National Advisory Board, with details available from URLs at the end.
In that presentation I cited a successful flight validation achieving accuracy on the order of cm/sec, for the crucially important relative velocity between vehicles that can be on or near a collision course. That is a thousand times less error than the 10 meter/sec allowed by ADSB. Furthermore, reduction by a thousand in each of three directions translates into a billion times less volume of uncertainty — or, in just two dimensions at fixed altitude, a million times less area. To realize this crucial safety improvement no new discoveries are needed and no new equipment needs to be invented; only the content of transmitted data needs to change: measurements rather than coordinates. Yet usage of the method is not being planned. After initially proposed before 2000, a limited support program started within the past few years is the only step taken toward this direction.

No claim is made that the last word has been spoken or that introduction of the needed modifications — nor accompanying regulation — would be trivial.  The intent here is not criticism and complaints for the sake of criticism and complaints.  Emphasizing unwelcome reality always caries risk of drawing wrath.  Nevertheless, especially now with growing usage of unmanned vehicles, sounding an alarm is better than passively waiting for a calamity. So here’s an alarm: Inadequate preparation for collision avoidance is a microcosm of a much wider overall flaw in today’s decision-making process. For years substantial numbers of qualified people have spent extensive effort trying to prevent cataclysmic failures in one area or another involving PNT (position/navigation/timing).  They definitely deserve attention and action.

Anything approaching a thorough compilation of worthy advocacy would require considerable length; just a few recent examples are cited here.  Explanations tracing inaction to current shortcomings can logically include a diagnosis of dissatisfaction expressed at a pinnacle of authority within DoD. An even more current offering is only the latest expression of regret over insufficient support for satnav, describing a highly relevant chain of inaction over a multiyear period. Near the beginning of that period, a cover story for Coordinates magazine repeated a quote from the previous month’s cover story   The quote worth repeating, cited at the start of this, is a perfect expression of the frustration prevalent over a decade following the universally acclaimed 2001 Volpe report. Now, almost a decade-and-a-half after that report, partial progress toward a solution coexists with minimal progress toward collision avoidance — while unmanned vehicles are already threatening passenger flight safety. Now to extend the quote: “Do we really need to wait for a catastrophe before making better use of measurements — GNSS or otherwise — to prevent collisions in the presence of increased manned and unmanned traffic?”

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.

 A comment challenged my video .  I’m glad it included an acknowledgment that some points might have been missed. To be frank that happened a bunch; bear with me while I explain. First, there’s the accuracy issue; doppler &/or deltarange info provided from many receivers is far less accurate than carrier phase (sometimes due to cutting corners in implementation — recall that carrier phase, as the integral of doppler, will be smoother if processing is done carefully). Next, preference for 20-msec intervals will backfire badly. If phase noise at L-band gives a respectable 7mm = 0.7cm, doppler velocity error [(current phase) – (previous phase)] / 1 sec is (1.414) (0.7) = 1 cm/sec RMS for a 1-sec sequential differencing interval.  Now use 20 msec: FIFTY times as much doppler error! Alternatively if division is implicit instead of overt, degradation is more complicated: sequential phase differences are highly correlated (with a correlation coefficient of -1/2, to be precise). That’s because the difference (current phase) – (previous phase) and the difference (next phase) – (current phase) both contain the common value of current phase. In a modern estimation algorithm, observations with sequentially correlated errors are far more difficult to process optimally.  That topic is a very deep one; Section 5.6 and Addendum 5.B of my 2007 book address it thoroughly. I’m not expecting everyone to go through all that but, to offer fortification for its credibility, let me cite a few items:

* agreement from other designers who abandoned efforts to use short intervals
* table near the bottom of a page on this site.

* phase residual plots from Chapter 8 of my 2007 book.

The latter two, it is recalled, came from flight test for an extended duration (until flight recorder was full), under severe test aircraft (DC-3) vibration.

For doppler updating from sources other than satnav, my point is stronger still. Doppler from radar (which lacks the advantage of passive operation) won’t get velocity error much below a meter/sec — and even that is an improvement over unaided inertial nav (we won’t see INS velocity specs expressed in cm/sec within our lifetime).

Additional advantages of what the video offers include (1) no requirement for a mask angle (2) GNSS interoperability, and (3) robustness. A brief explanation:

(1) Virtually the whole world discards all measurements from low-elevation satellites because of propagation errors. But ionospheric and tropospheric effects change very little over a second; 1-sec phase differences are great for velocity information. Furthermore they offer a major geometry advantage while occurrence of multipath would stick out like a sore thumb, easily edited out.
(2) 1-sec differences from various constellations are much easier to mix than the phases themselves. 
(3) For receivers exploiting FFT capability  even short fragments of data, not sufficiently continuous for conventional mechanizations (track loops), are made available for discrete updates.
The whole “big picture” is a major improvement is robust operation 

The challenger isn’t the only one who missed these points; much of our industry, in fact, is missing the boat in crucial areas. Again I understand skepticism, but consider the “conventional wisdom” regarding ADSB: Velocity errors expressed in meters per second — you can hear speculative values as high as ten. GRADE SCHOOL ARITHMETIC shows how scary that is; collision avoidance extrapolates ahead. Consider the vast error volume resulting from doing that 90 seconds ahead of closest approach time with several meters per second of velocity error. So — rely on see-and-avoid? There are beaucoup videos that show how futile that is (and many more videos that show how often near misses occur — in addition there are about a thousand runway incursions each year). That justifies the effort for dramatic reduction of errors in tracking dynamics — to cm/sec relative velocity accuracy.

It’s perfectly logical for people to question my claims if they seem too good to be true. All I ask is follow through, with visits to URLs cited here.


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.


Questions submitted by members of various forums, understandably, frequently involve one or more of the following topics:
 * some or all facets of inertial navigation
 * means of updating and reinitializing the drifting inertial solution
 * satellite navigation (GPS/GNSS) for providilng the updates
 * other means of updating (radar, laser, optics, VOR, DME, hyperbolic, … )
 * best ways to use what’s available for various applications.
The pool of literature that might be offered can be vast, partly due to a vast array of operations – each with application-dependent requirements.  Finding just the relevant information from a mountain of available references can be a daunting task, especially for young designers.  I’ll try to make their search easier, by offering a list they can ask themselves early in the design process:
 * do you need a lat/lon/altitude Earth reference or just a designated point?
 * is the path determined from provisions onboard (nav) or remote (track)?
 * what’s your required accuracy for “absolute” (geolocation) position?
 * what’s your required accuracy for relative position (e.g., from a runway)?
 * do you need precise incremental position history (SAR motion compensation)?
 * do you need precise angular orientation (e.g., laser pointing)?
 * do you need precise angular rates (for image or antenna stabilization)?
 * for direction do you use a North reference or just along-track/cross-track?
 * will you have dependable access to updating information (GPS, radar, …)?
 * if not, how irregular will dynamics be over active parts of your mission?
 * if so, how irregular will the dynamics be during inter-update periods?
 * also if so, what data rate? Longest expected “blind period” between updates?
 * also if so, will measurements need averaging to meet your required accuracy?
 * also if so, how accurate are your measurements AND their time stamps?
 * also if so, can you use postprocessing or do you need everything real-time?
 * are you willing to accept partial updates (some but not all directions)?
 * do you need just position or derivatives too (velocity, acceleration)?
 * if so, how long can your dynamics be trusted to conform to model fidelity?
 * are you doing INS update (e.g., replacing acceleration with tilt states)?
 * if so, will you need to deduce drift rates – and how long will those hold?
 * do your sensors measure distances, angles, doppler, differences of those?
 * for how long does your sensor information content provide observability?
 * how’s your sensor integrity (bad readings at least detectable if present)?
 * for safety-critical operations — what are your backup provisions?
 * are you accommodating multiple modes with time-shared sensing resources?
 * do you need to perform image registration with different imaging sensors?
etc.etc. — the list goes on.  I won’t even try to claim thoroughness; you get the idea.  Designers with new tasks dumped in their lap can understandably feel overwhelmed.  Searching for references can become a trip through a maze of half-relevant sources.
A first step, then, is to separate the relevant (what you need) from the irrelevant (what you don’t need), instantly dismiss any thought of the latter, and do the opposite with the former (nail it).
Brief examples — the first two items from the above list —
 * If you just need to know your location relative to a designated point, irrespective of its latitude and lingitude — this might help.
 * If you’re tracking instead of navigating — check these out —
and one from the last item from that list —
Again, you get the idea — volumes have been written on all facets.  Many won’t apply to your immediate task; disregard those.
The good news is — paths to logical solutions are known and documented.  To avoid abandoning you to an enormous maze of references I’ll point out some fundamental and advanced (state-of-the-art) tracts that address all issues just cited and more.  Several blogs and short “1-pagers” will help individual designers to choose, based on their specific tasks, passages from available references.
Before GPS we struggled hard for accurate measurements in enough places.  That actually produced a benefit — we had to be resourceful.  My biggest challenge was to understand subjects (Kalman filtering, strapdown inertial navigation) then considered exotic.  Again a benefit; pulling information from 1950s books and papers forced me to understand, focus, and reduce concepts to whatever level became necessary.  The experience prompted me to write the first of my two books on navigation.
That first book has been used in myriad courses, including one currently taught by Prof. Hablani who wrote the most recent testimonial shown on that URL .
Some topics that earlier book explained in detail recently came up in another discussion — http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&discussionID=44646633&gid=160643&commentID=68798460&trk=view_disc
For example, slow (“W” radian/sec) oscillations with “W” corresponding to the Schuler period (between 83 and 84 minutes). In that case position error from accelerometer bias, propagating as (1 – cos Wt), rises much sooner than gyro drift, propagating as (t – sin Wt/W). Page 80 of that book sketches an example of behavior over a cycle.  Development offered beyond there expands as far as many analysts wish to go (other natural frequencies of error propagation, rectification of vibration-sensitive errors, etc.).
Not long after that first book appeared, GPS became operational — and I was a newcomer to that.  By the time I understood it there were many experts.  Once again I had to catch up, and the process was gradual.  With an exceptionally strong client interested in my inertial background, a synergism was formed. That led to a flight test producing state-of-the-art accuracy in dynamics; see the table describing several innovations also resulting from the work just described.
That second book, after a review chapter, begins where the first (pre-GPS) one left off.  It also (1)is used in tutorials and (2)has received testimonials from other instructors, as the URL shows.  Sources cited here, plus an online 1.5-hr tutorial, free to Inst-of-Navigation members, plus a “try-before-you-buy” 100-page excerpt available from this site, should be helpful to many.

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.

Schuler cycles distorted — Here’s why

1999 publication I coauthored took dead aim at a characteristic that received far too little attention — and still continues to be widely overlooked: mechanical mounting misalignment of inertial instruments.  To make the point as clearly as possible I focused exclusively on gyro misalignment — e.g., the sensitive axes of roll, pitch, and yaw gyros aren’t quite perpendicular to one another.  It was easily shown that the effect in free-inertial coast (i.e., with no updates from GPS or other navaids) was serious, even if no other errors existed.

It’s important here to discuss why the message took so long to penetrate.  The main reason is historic; inertial navigation originated in the form of a gimbaled platform holding the gyros and accelerometers in a stable orientation.  When the vehicle carrying that assembly would rotate, the gimbal servos would automatically receive a command from the gyros, keeping the platform oriented along its reference directions (e.g., North/East/vertical for moderate latitudes).  Since angular rates experienced by the inertial instruments were low, gyro misalignment and scale factor errors were much more tolerable than they are with today’s strapdown systems.  I’ve been calling that the “Achilles’ heel” of strapdown for decades now.  The roots go all the way back to 1966 (publication #6) when simulation clearly showed how serious it is.  Not long thereafter another necessary departure from convention became quite clear: replacement of the omnipresent nmi/hr performance criteria for numerous operations.  That characteristic is an average over a period between 83 and 84 minutes.  It is practically irrelevant for a large and growing number of applications that depend on short-term accuracy. {e.g., synthetic aperture radar (SAR), inertial aiding of track loops, antenna stabilization, etc.}, Early assertions of that reality (publication #26 and mention of it in still earlier reports and publications involving SAR) were essentially lost in “that giant shouting match out there” until some realization crept in after publication #38.

Misalignment: mechanical mounting imprecision

Whenever this topic is discussed, certain points must be put to rest.  The first concerns terminology; much of the petinent literature uses the word misalignments to describe small-angle directional uncertainty components (e.g., error in perception of downward and North, which drive errors in velocity).  To avoid misinterpretation I refer to nav-axis direction uncertainty as misorientation.  In the presence of rotations, mounting misalignment contributes to misorientation.  Those effects, taking place promptly upon rotation of the strapdown inertial instrument assembly, stand in marked contrast to leisurely (nominal 84-minute) classical Schuler dynamics.

The second point, lab calibration, is instantly resolved by redefining each error as a residual amount remaining due to calibration imperfections plus post-cal aging and thermal effects — that amount is still (1) excessive in many cases, and (2) in any event, not covered by firm spec commitments.

A third point involves error propagation and a different kind of calibration (in-flight).  With the old (gimbal) mechanization, in-flight calibration could counteract much overall gyro drift effect.  Glib assessments in the 1990s promoted widespread belief that the same would likewise be true for  strapdown.  Changing that perspective motivated the investigation and publication mentioned at the top of this blog.

In that publication it was shown that, although the small-angle approximation is conservative for large changes in direction, it is not extremely so.  The last equation of its Appendix A shows a factor of (pi/2) for a 180-deg turn.  A more thorough discussion of that issue, and how it demands attentiveness to short-lived angular rates, appears on pages 98-99 of GNSS Aided Navigation and Tracking.  Appendix II on pages 239-258 of that same book also provides a program, with further supporting analysis, that supersedes the publication mentioned at the top of this blog.  That program can be downloaded from here.

The final point concerns the statistical distribution of errors.  Especially with safety involved (e.g., trusting free-inertial coast error propagation), it is clearly not enough to specify RMS errors.  For example, 2 arc-sec is better than 20 but what are the statistics?  Furthermore there is nothing to preclude unexpected extension of duration for free-inertial coast after a missed approach followed by a large change in direction.  A recent coauthored investigation (Farrell and vanGraas, ION-GNSS-2010 Proceedings) applies Extreme Value Theory (EVT) to outliers, showing unacceptably high incidences of large multiples (e.g., ten-sigma and beyond).  To substantiate that, there’s room here for an abbreviated explanation —  even in linear systems, gaussian inputs produce gaussian outputs only under very restrictive conditions.

A more complete assessment of misalignment accounts for further imperfections in mounting: the sensitive axis of each accelerometer deviates from that of its corresponding gyro.  As explained on page 72 of Integrated Aircraft Navigation, an IMU with a gyro-accelerometer combo for each of three nominally orthogonal directions has nine total misalignment components for instruments relative to each other.

GPS Carrier Phase for Dynamics ?

The practice of dead reckoning (a figurative phrase of uncertain origin) is five centuries old.   In its original form, incremental excursions were plotted on a mariner’s chart using dividers for distances, with directions obtained via compass (with corrections for magnetic variation and deviation). Those steps, based on perceived velocity over known time intervals, were accumulated until a correction became available (e.g., from a landmark or a star sighting).

Modern technology has produced more accurate means of dead reckoning, such as Doppler radar or inertial navigation systems.   Addressed here is an alternative means of dead reckoning, by exploiting sequential changes in highly accurate carrier phase. The method, successfully validated in flight with GPS, easily lends itself to operation with satellites from other GNSS constellations (GALILEO, GLONASS, etc.).  That interoperability is now one of the features attracting increased attention; sequential changes in carrier phase are far easier to mix than the phases themselves, and measurements formed that way are insensitive to ephemeris errors (even with satellite mislocation,  changes in satellite position are precise).

Even with usage of only one constellation (i.e., GPS for the flight test results reported here), changes in carrier phase over 1-second intervals provided important benefits. Advantages to be described now will be explained in terms of limitations in the way carrier phase information is used conventionally.   Phase measurements are normally expressed as a product of the L-band wavelength multiplied by a sum in the form (integer + fraction) wherein the fraction is precisely measured while the large integer must be determined. When that integer is known exactly the result is of course extremely accurate.  Even the most ingenious methods of integer extraction, however, occasionally produce a highly inaccurate result.   The outcome can be catastrophic and there can be an unacceptably long delay before correction is possible.   Elimination of that possibility provided strong motivation for the scheme described here.

Linear phase facilitates streaming velocity with GNSS interoperability

With formation of 1-sec changes, all carrier phases can be forever ambiguous, i.e., the integers can remain unknown; they cancel in forming the sequential differences. Furthermore, discontinuities can be tolerated; a reappearing signal is instantly acceptable as soon as two successive carrier phases differ by an amount satisfying the single-measurement RAIM test.   The technique is especially effective with receivers using FFT-based processing, which provides unconditional access, with no phase distortion, to all correlation cells (rather than a limited subset offered by a track loop).

Another benefit is subtle but highly significant: acceptability of sub-mask carrier phase changes. Ionospheric and tropospheric timing offsets change very little over a second. Conventional systems are designed to reject measurements from low elevation satellites. Especially in view of improved geometric spread, retention here prevents unnecessary loss of important information.   Demonstration of that occurred in flight when a satelllite dropped to horizon; submask pseudoranges of course had to be rejected, but all of the 1-sec carrier phase changes were perfectly acceptable until the satellite was no longer detectable.

One additional (deeper) topic, requiring much more rigorous analysis, arises from sequential correlations among 1-sec phase change observables. The issue is thoroughly addressed and put to rest in the later sections of the 5th chapter of GNSS Aided Navigation and Tracking.

Dead reckoning capability without-IMU was verified in flight, producing decimeter/sec RMS velocity errors outside of turn transients (Section 8.1.2, pages 154-162 of the book just cited). With a low-cost IMU, accuracy is illustrated in the table near the bottom of a 1-page description on this site (also appearing on page 104 of that book). All 1-sec phase increment residual magnitudes were zero or 1 cm for the seven satellites (six across-SV differences) observed at the time shown. Over almost an hour of flight at altitude (i.e., excluding takeoff, when heading uncertainty caused larger lever-arm vector errors), cm/sec RMS velocity accuracy was obtained.

An early comment sent to this site raised a question as to how long I’ve been doing this kind of work.  Yes I’m an old-timer.  Some of my earlier Kalman filter studies are cited in books dating back to the 1970s — e.g., Jazwinski, Stochastic Processes and Filtering Theory, 1970 (page 267); Bryson & Ho, Applied Optimal Control, 1975 (page 374); Spilker, Digital Communication by Satellite, 1977 (page 636).  My first book, published by Academic Press, initially appeared in 1976.

In the early 1960s, not long after Kalman’s ASME breakthrough paper on optimal filtering, I was at work simulating its effectiveness for orbit determination (publication #4).  No formal recognition of EKF existed at that time, but nonlinearities in both dynamics and observables made that course of action an obvious choice.  In 1967 I applied it to attitude determination for my Ph.D. dissertation (publication #9). Shortly thereafter I wrote a program (publication #16) for application to deformations of a satellite so large (end-to-end length taller than the Empire State Building) that its flexural oscillations were too slow to allow decoupling from its rotational motion (publications #10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 27).  Within that same time period I analyzed and simulated strapdown inertial navigation (publications #6, 7, 8).

Early familiarizarion with Kalman filtering and inertial navigation paid huge dividends during subsequent efforts in other areas.  Those included, at first, doppler nav with a time-shared radar beam (publication #20), synthetic aperture radar (publications #21, 22, 38, 41), synchronization (publication #19), tracking (publications #23, 24, 28, 30, 32, 36, 39, 40, 48, 52, 54, 60, 61, 66, 67, 69), transfer alignment (publications #29, 41, 44), software validation (publications #34, 42), image fusion (publications #43, 49), optimal control (publication #33), plus a few others.  All these efforts made it quite clear to me — there’s much more to all this than sets of equations.

Involvement in all those fields had a side effect of delaying my entry into GPS work; I was a latecomer when the GPS pioneers were already established.  GPS/GNSS is heavily involved, however, in much of my later work (latter half of my publications) — and my work in other areas produced a major benefit:  The experience provided insights which, in the words of one reviewer quoted in the book description (click here) are either hard to find or unavailable anywhere else.  Recognizing opportunities for synergism — many still absent from today’s operational systems — enabled me to cross the line into advocacy (publications #26, 47, 55, 63, 66, 68, 73, 74, 77, 83, 84, 85, 86).  Innovations present in GNSS Aided Navigation and Tracking were either traceable to or enhanced by my earlier familiarization with techniques used in other areas.

For steady-state a suboptimal estimator can be designed with near-optimal performance.  A Kalman filter, though, optimizes accuracy during transients too – provided that the model is known and linear.  Immediately we’ll  invoke the “almost/most/if” qualification: an extended Kalman filter (EKF) is almost optimum, throughout most of its operation, if the model is almost linear and modeling errors are held in check via process noise.  Rather than presenting justification here I’ll cite a set of “do’s-and-dont’s” – validated by long experience – from Section 2.9 of GNSS Aided Navigation and Tracking, with GPS/INS flight test data included.  Eqs. (9.9)-(9.19) of that same reference provides simple design equations for alpha-beta and alpha-beta-gamma trackers that have consistently produced success in operation.

First we’ll note that suboptimal is not equated to “constant gain” – if for no other reason, the time between measurements will vary in many systems.  That’s quite easily accommodated by the alpha-beta[-gamma] designs just mentioned.  There are additional reasons, though, that can be illustrated by addressing a taxing situation for initiating a radar track file in close range air-to-air encounters between two fighter jets.  The target’s (i.e., tracked object’s) cross-range velocity at lock-on time is unknown.  It could be 800 ft/sec, for example, in which case the tracker’s initial velocity error has at least that 800-ft/sec component.  With any additional unknown component of along-range velocity the target may have at that instant (doppler, if observed, might not yet be trusted to represent range rate dynamics), the tracker’s initial velocity error will then exceed 800 ft/sec.  The transient at acquisition could easily be further complicated by acceleration.  Anyone familiar with servo pull-in dynamics will immediately see how the transient can reach significantly beyond the initial error – very fast – in multiple directions (e.g., East/West and North/South).  Since we’re not at all comfortable with velocity errors on the order of 1000 ft/sec, the task is to wash that out ASAP.

A Kalman filter having accurate knowledge of the initial [P] matrix would breeze through this challenge.  An excellent example of its role is provided by this transient behavior.  Knowledge of that matrix is tantamount to knowing whether – at initiation time – the tracker’s North velocity error is positively or negatively correlated (i.e., likely to have the same or opposite sign) as its North position error, likewise for East velocity error with same-vs-opposite sign of North acceleration error, and likewise … all combinations – not only the signs but also the RMS amounts.  Of course that’s completely unrealistic.  So now what?

Suboptimal gain sets phased in at the right times can handle this.  For a simple illustration, let a 3-dimensional tracker, divided into three separable 3-state (position/speed/acceleration) single-direction channels, have a 20-Hz update rate.  If the first few updates have gains of 0.5 or more for position only, even a huge position error can be quickly brought down near sensor-error levels before accompanying errors in dynamics have much time to propagate. Then after that many (“K1”) position corrections, a position-&-speed update phase can be initiated, using the alpha-beta tracker gains related as shown in Eq. (9.12) of the reference cited above.  Duration of that phase is devised to last only as long as necessary to reduce speed error to design levels (which will be proportional to measurement error divided by that duration).  After the total number of corrections has reached that intended design value (“K2”), the alpha-beta-gamma phase can start with gains related according to Eqs. (9.18-19) of that same reference.  That phase continues until the total corrections count reaches “K3” at which time acceleration error is reduced to an amount inversely proportional to the square of (K3-K2).  Gains thereafter may conform to Kalman filter weighting.

This example is not intended to advocate substituting suboptimal for optimal designs just anywhere.  Separation of 3-dimensional trackers into 3-state single-direction channels is often permissible (and sometimes even highly advisable), but – as shown in the cited reference – sometimes inappropriate.  Where it is permitted, use it; solving the unknown-P-zero problem is especially important in applications of this type.  A word to the wise: Do not (repeat: do not) make the update counts K1,K2,etc. programmable.  If you do, someone unfamiliar with the reasoning above will experiment, allowing resets to values producing very prolonged back-and-forth transfer of errors among position and dynamics (one gets worse as another improves; then vice-versa).  When that spectacle is seen by nontechnical administrators, your image in their minds will forever be indelibly painted with that long drawn-out transient veering back and forth between plus and minus extreme levels.

Another slice-of-advice: Even if inputs are extremely erratic, your tracker must maintain high responsiveness (for sensor sightline stabilization at short range and for range[/doppler] gate placement at any range) – but – the outside world doesn’t have to witness the results of that “hitchy-hatchy” from wildly erratic inputs.  So: don’t change the tracker but do low-pass filter what goes outside.  If “hiding the system’s warts” thereby produces criticism, the justification is: the filtered output, even with the resulting delay (and possibly an accompanying distortion), is easier to interpret.