Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Strapdown systems

Lightweight digital computers permit the system to eliminate the gimbals, creating "strapdown" systems, so called because their sensors are simply strapped to the vehicle. This reduces the cost, eliminates gimbal lock, removes the need for some calibrations, and increases the reliability by eliminating some of the moving parts. Angular rate sensors called "rate gyros" measure how the angular velocity of the vehicle changes.

A strapdown system has a dynamic measurement range several hundred times that required by a gimbaled system. That is, it must integrate the vehicle's attitude changes in pitch, roll and yaw, as well as gross movements. Gimballed systems could usually do well with update rates of 50 to 60 updates per second. However, strapdown systems normally update about 2000 times per second. The higher rate is needed to keep the maximum angular measurement within a practical range for real rate gyros: about 4 milliradians. Most rate gyros are now laser interferometers.

The data updating algorithms ("direction cosines" or "quaternions") involved are too complex to be accurately performed except by digital electronics. However, digital computers are now so inexpensive and fast that rate gyro systems can now be practically used and mass-produced. The Apollo lunar module used a strapdown system in its backup Abort Guidance System (AGS).

Strapdown systems are nowadays commonly used in commercial and tactical applications (arcraft, missiles, etc). However they are still not widespread in applications where superb accuracy is required (like submarine navigation or strategic ICBM guidance).