Aircraft Inertial Navigation System/Inertial Reference System

An inertial navigation system (INS) is used on some large aircraft for long range navigation. This may also be identified as an inertial reference system (IRS), although the IRS designation is generally reserved for more modern systems. An INS/IRS is a self contained system that does not require input radio signals from a ground navigation facility or transmitter. The system derives attitude, velocity, and direction information from measurement of the aircraft’s accelerations given a known starting point. The location of the aircraft is continuously updated through calculations based on the forces experienced by INS accelerometers. A minimum of two accelerometers is used, one referenced to north, and the other referenced to east. In older units, they are mounted on a gyro-stabilized platform. This averts the introduction of errors that may result from acceleration due to gravity.

An INS uses complex calculation made by an INS computer to convert applied forces into location information. An interface control head is used to enter starting location position data while the aircraft is stationary on the ground. This is called initializing. [Figure 1]

Aircraft Inertial Navigation System
Figure 1. An interface panel for three air data and inertial reference systems on an Airbus. The keyboard is used to initialize the system. Latitude and longitude position is displayed at the top

From then on, all motion of the aircraft is sensed by the built-in accelerometers and run through the computer. Feedback and correction loops are used to correct for accumulated error as flight time progresses. The amount an INS is off in one hour of flight time is a reference point for determining performance. Accumulated error of less than one mile after one hour of flight is possible. Continuous accurate adjustment to the gyro-stabilized platform to keep it parallel to the Earth’s surface is a key requirement to reduce accumulated error. A latitude/longitude coordinate system is used when giving the location output.

INS is integrated into an airliner’s flight management system and automatic flight control system. Waypoints can be entered for a predetermined flightpath and the INS will guide the aircraft to each waypoint in succession. Integration with other NAV aids is also possible to ensure continuous correction and improved accuracy but is not required.

Modern INS systems are known as IRS. They are completely solid-state units with no moving parts. Three-ring, laser gyros replace the mechanical gyros in the older INS platform systems. This eliminates precession and other mechanical gyro shortcomings. The use of three solid-state accelerometers, one for each plane of movement, also increases accuracy. The accelerometer and gyro output are input to the computer for continuous calculation of the aircraft’s position.

The most modern IRS integrate is the satellite GPS. The GPS is extremely accurate in itself. When combined with IRS, it creates one of the most accurate navigation systems available. The GPS is used to initialize the IRS so the pilot no longer needs to do so. GPS also feeds data into the IRS computer to be used for error correction. Occasional service interruptions and altitude inaccuracies of the GPS system pose no problem for IRS/GPS. The IRS functions continuously and is completely self contained within the IRS unit. Should the GPS falter, the IRS portion of the system continues without it. The latest electronic technology has reduced the size and weight of INS/IRS avionics units significantly. Figure 2 shows a modern micro-IRS unit that measures approximately 6-inches on each side.

Aircraft Inertial Navigation System
Figure 2. A modern micro-IRS with built-in GPS

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