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Inertial tech: The core positioning technology that never stops working

As industrial technology advances to meet modern challenges with smarter solutions for automotive, construction, agriculture, mining and even surveying, industries are leveraging cutting-edge tools to make new strides. One of the technologies playing a lead role in today’s innovative solutions has been around for over 80 years, and is now playing a lead role in positioning applications. 

Inertial technology is enjoying a renewed appreciation for its indisputable role in optimizing positioning and orientation for maximum accuracy just about anywhere  — inside or out. 

What is so great about inertial technology and how does it work? 

For starters, it’s a workhorse. Since it’s self contained, requiring no external references to work,  an inertial navigation system (INS) Never. Stops. Working. This also makes the technology inherently resistant to jamming and spoofing. Using a combination of sensors, it’s always computing every motion and force. 

Devices containing an INS’s multiple sensors are commonly called inertial measurement units (IMUs). Inertial sensors are even present in most of today’s smartphones, video game controllers and virtual reality headsets. A gyroscope measures the rate of change of the sensor’s orientation. An accelerometer measures the external specific force acting on the sensor. The specific force consists of both the sensor’s acceleration and the earth’s gravity. 

Nowadays, many gyroscopes and accelerometers are based on microelectromechanical system (MEMS) technology with small, light and inexpensive components featuring low power consumption and short start-up times. 

An aided-INS takes different inputs and melds them together to create one optimal sensor fusion solution. At its core, the INS takes GNSS when it’s available, wheel odometry when it has wheels, and computes changes in position and orientation for perception if it has targets. (Trimble is currently developing an inertial processing engine that will accept mapping solution inputs, whether third party or Trimble built.)

Paving the way for a new era of precise, reliable operations

Inertial technology has become a cornerstone for various industrial applications such as surveying — providing precise data capture while negating manual measurement.

Picture a drilling operation where the equipment knows its exact location, down to the last few centimeters. Imagine yourself underground in a deep-pit mine or navigating through dense foliage out of satellite view. Inertial technology shines in these scenarios too, continually ensuring reliable data on positioning and orientation, and an uninterrupted workflow.

Offering a detailed understanding of both position and orientation, the advantages of inertial technology make it a preferred alternative for industries like construction, mining and agriculture.

Inertial technology provides high-frequency data updates, empowering automated systems to react instantly to deviations, negating costly errors or rework — an indispensable benefit.

Uninterrupted positioning and orientation data, always

Where forested areas can disrupt GNSS signals, inertial is there. When mountainous terrains with extreme gradients make traditional surveying risky and time-consuming, inertial is there. When underground scenarios render satellite signals non-existent, inertial is there. When skyscrapers can result in multi-path errors, inertial is there.

Fusing this technology with GNSS unlocks unprecedented levels of accuracy in positioning and orientation. (Which is the chocolate and which is the peanut butter? It really doesn’t matter; they’re both impressive separately, but even better together.) One recent partnership with IHI Corp. demonstrates this sensor fusion benefit for vehicles needing to go back and forth from one building to another, from inside to outside, and vice versa — using core inertial tech, GNSS and LiDAR.

Aided INS optimizes the positioning and orientation picture, as demonstrated in the Dynapac compactor powered by Trimble’s INS solution, GNSS, perception tech and sensors to achieve auto steering and other autonomous capabilities.

Consider machine control — where inertial tech unleashes higher levels of accuracy for precision movement. Within industry, this opens new doors for tracking equipment in real time, effortlessly ensuring every piece of machinery is being optimized.

Every rotation of your machinery backed by precision inertial technology enhances productivity. Gone are the days when your workforce had no choice but to expend hours or days on tasks that can be flawlessly executed by inertial-equipped machinery, freeing up your workforce to handle other tasks.

It's imperative to ensure your tech partner has what it takes to lead the pack — not only by providing the expertise in building inertial tech, but also delivering it in a timely manner, and making sure it integrates seamlessly with other key positioning technologies. 

A slice of history…

Historically, orientation emerged from inertial-only technology. And while GNSS is the ideal positioning data beacon in open skies via GNSS IMU systems today, a complete positioning solution must know where it is without GNSS. That’s where inertial tech steps to keep the ball rolling with a high degree of accuracy. 

Trimble entered the navigation realm in the late 1990s with a mission to establish a level of positioning and orientation accuracy beyond that of inertial and GPS tech available at the time. While early solutions relied solely on inertial navigation — as it had in submarines and commercial airplanes — the Applanix POS LV made it possible to leverage GNSS technology for sensor fusion solutions, using aided INS to make drift errors a thing of the past. See more related technology here.

Trimble’s position — then and now — remains that no single sensor technology can provide the level of accuracy required for today’s positioning and orientation applications. Optimizing the best inertial has to offer via sensor fusion is crucial in safety-critical applications.