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Five Ways Inertial Sensors Are Being Used to Navigate and Orient the Future

Five Ways Inertial Sensors Are Being Used to Navigate and Orient the Future

“How do they know where they’re going,” I asked myself, sitting in rush hour traffic next to one of Waymo’s autonomous test vehicles.

Little did I know that Waymo and many other companies rely on inertial sensors to navigate autonomous vehicles. Similarly, inertial sensors are used to create the mobile mapping application autonomous vehicles rely on to make the correct turns, stops and other directional cues that get it from point A to point B safely.  

This same technology has been a staple of Honeywell for decades. In fact, Honeywell was one of the first companies to pioneer the science behind inertial sensors, delivering more than 500,000 to customers across the world to guide, navigate and orient just about everything in the air, on the ground and at sea.

Inertial measurement units (IMUs) use gyroscopes and accelerometers to sense rotation and acceleration. They can be used in any application for which it’s important to accurately measure and compensate for vibration and motion under the most challenging conditions. In addition to helping stabilize antennas and cameras, IMUs are also used on robots, autonomous vehicles and drones that require navigation in the absence of external aiding signals.

An inertial navigation system (INS) is comprised of an IMU, a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) receiver and sensor fusion software. These components work together to calculate position, orientation, and velocity to deliver critical navigation information in GNSS-denied areas like urban canyons, bridges, tunnels, mountains, parking garages and dense forests.

Today, Honeywell’s navigation portfolio uses the best of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and ring laser gyro (RLG) technology to provide a complete suite of offerings to customers around the world.

Inertial sensors, IMUs and inertial navigation systems are used in various manned and unmanned applications such as agriculture, AUVs, communications, industrial equipment, marine, oil and gas, robotics, survey and mapping, stabilized platforms, transportation, UAVs and UGVs.

In this article, we take a deeper look into how IMUs and inertial navigation systems are helping us orient and navigate the future. Here are a few examples:

Navigating Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or Drones

You hear a lot these days about autonomous and remotely piloted drones performing a diverse array of tasks, from conducting military surveillance, to inspecting power poles and powerlines, to delivering pizzas. IMU/GNSS technology enables precise navigation and positioning, even when GPS signals are unavailable or unreliable. For example, when the UAV is flying in an urban canyon, created by tall buildings. Our technology is so accurate it’s being used in aerial 3D mapping applications, which require precise location data so a computer can reassemble 2D slices to create a 3D image.

Orienting and Navigating Autonomous Vehicles

Inertial navigation systems are ideal for autonomous vehicles, like the coming generation of urban air mobility (UAM) aircraft and self-driving cars. The IMU provides critical information about a vehicle’s precise position, direction and speed, even when the vehicle is deprived of GPS signal because it is in an urban canyon, forest, parking structure or tunnel. In a real-world test on a self-driving car, a Honeywell inertial navigation system was able to pinpoint a vehicle’s location within 35 meters, an error of less than 0.2 percent, after a 2.5-hour journey.

Making Robots and Factories More Precise

Whether it be this robotic dog or factories looking to scale, engineers are recognizing that IMU characteristics can complement other sensors used in autonomous machines, including robots that perform various tasks. Because they’re lightweight and compact, IMUs can be placed in several spots on a robot where they can provide precise data to help with stability, balance, positioning and movement.

Stabilizing Cameras and Antennas

Honeywell IMUs can detect the slightest vibrations in a vehicle or other moving platform on which an antenna or camera is mounted. These measurements are fed into a control system, which corrects or stabilizes the platform. This is especially important when antennas are mounted on a moving vehicle like a ship, helicopter, unmanned aerial vehicle or off-road vehicle. The IMU senses the roll, pitch and heading the vehicle and provides real-time data that enables the platform to compensate for movement, so the antenna stays engaged and locked onto the signal.

Maintaining Railways, Bridges and Critical Infrastructure

In addition to detecting vibrations, inertial navigation system can identify slight movements over time in railways, bridges and other critical infrastructure like highways, powerlines, buildings and more. Inertial navigation systems, which are designed to still work in areas where GPS or GNSS is denied can significantly improve maintenance operations where walking crews are needed to inspect large areas of continuous equipment or building materials.

Honeywell is continually working with new customers and their engineering teams to better understand how our inertial sensors can serve as a navigation aid in new manned and unmanned applications. For more information about Honeywell is evolving navigation, please visit

Kathryn Kearney
Content Marketing Specialist
Katie Kearney is the global content marketing specialist for Honeywell Aerospace.


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