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What is An Inertial Navigation System?

IMU HGuide
IMU HGuide

What is An Inertial Navigation System?

Whether you’re traveling by commercial airliner, business jet, military transport or even a new self-driving car, chances are pretty good that an inertial navigation system (INS) is playing an integral role in your journey from Point A to Point B. The modern INS is accurate, reliable and newly affordable for a number of emerging applications and markets.

What is an inertial navigation system?

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.

The information from the IMU is used to compute how an object has moved through three-dimensional space, what direction it’s heading and how fast it’s going.  An INS often receives data from a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) receiver and fuses it with data from the IMU to provide information to the host computer about the platform’s absolute position (latitude, longitude, and altitude) and attitude (roll, pitch, and heading).  The host computer on the platform (for example, an autonomous vehicle) then uses that information to complete its mission.

The IMU and GNSS technologies complement each other and improve the accuracy of modern navigation systems. For example, GNSS data improves the accuracy of INS data by compensating for the drift that occurs due to the accumulation of small errors in the data provided by the IMU. 

On the other hand, it’s important to note that an INS doesn’t require GNSS or any other external references to compute an object’s position or direction. This is extremely useful in cases where GNSS signals are unavailable, blocked or interrupted, such as when a vehicle equipped with an INS travels through a tunnel.

The INS was one of the biggest game-changers in the history of navigation, freeing us from the days when aviators flew by the stars or relied on magnetic compasses and gimballed gyroscopes, which had severe limitations especially near the poles. Once INS solutions were installed on aircraft, they enabled a massive breakthrough by providing flight crews with unprecedented levels of situational awareness.

Inertial navigation systems have continually improved over the decades. Advances to make INS solutions smaller and less expensive have enabled adoption across a wide range of emerging markets requiring an autonomous operation.

Since being proven in a host of aerospace applications, INS capabilities are now making inroads in the industrial world. For example, innovators are applying INS-based technologies to autonomous vehicles and in fields as diverse as manufacturing, robotics, agriculture, transportation, industrial equipment, marine, mobile mapping, oil and gas, and mining.

Honeywell engineers are doing exciting and pioneering work aimed at applying the company’s unique expertise in inertial sensing and INS technologies to these and other industries. We have current initiatives aimed at helping customers accomplish such challenging tasks as navigating an autonomous car or remotely piloted vehicle, stabilizing a high-speed camera, enabling 3D mapping and surveying underwater pipelines.

Jon Thorland
Jon Thorland joined Honeywell in 2004 and has been involved in engineering, product management, and sales of inertial sensors and navigation units for the past 16 years. He currently is the Growth Leader for the HGuide product line focused on bringing Honeywell Aerospace’s inertial technology to brand new markets.


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