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DARPA develops non-GPS navigation chip


April 11, 2013

DARPA's “timing & inertial measurement unit” (TIMU) is a chip-based self-sufficient navigation system that is smaller than a penny

DARPA's “timing & inertial measurement unit” (TIMU) is a chip-based self-sufficient navigation system that is smaller than a penny

The Global Positioning System (GPS) has proved a boon for those with a bad sense of direction, but the satellite-based system isn’t without its shortcomings. Something as simple as going indoors or entering a tunnel can render the system useless. That might be inconvenient for civilians, but it's potentially disastrous for military users for whom the system was originally built. DARPA is addressing such concerns with the development of a self-sufficient navigation system that can aid navigation when GPS is temporarily unavailable.

We’ve looked at numerous approaches using various mixes of technology that are designed to step up to the plate when GPS falls short. Navatar and Casio’s EX-H20G camera rely on a compass, accelerometers and pre-loaded maps, Smartsense and IndoorAtlas track a user’s movement through the Earth’s magnetic field, while UnLoc detects “invisible landmarks” to locate users.

DARPA researchers working at the University of Michigan have taken an approach somewhat similar to the Navatar and Casio systems with the creation of a “timing & inertial measurement unit” (TIMU).

The TIMU prototype contains a highly-accurate master clock and a six-axis inertial measurement unit consisting of three gyroscopes and three accelerometers. These give the device the ability to gather precise orientation, acceleration and time information to track a user’s position from A to B when contact with GPS satellites is temporarily lost.

The sensors are packed onto a single chip in six microfabricated layers that are each just 50 microns thick, which is approximately the thickness of a human hair. At just 10 cubic millimeters in size, the whole package is smaller than a U.S. penny.

“Both the structural layer of the sensors and the integrated package are made of silica,” said Andrei Shkel, DARPA program manager. “The hardness and the high-performance material properties of silica make it the material of choice for integrating all of these devices into a miniature package. The resulting TIMU is small enough and should be robust enough for applications (when GPS is unavailable or limited for a short period of time) such as personnel tracking, handheld navigation, small diameter munitions and small airborne platforms.”

Source: DARPA

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

"The TIMU prototype contains a highly-accurate master clock and a six-axis inertial measurement unit consisting of three gyroscopes and three accelerometers."

Holy crap! All that in a package only a few millimeters on the side and one-twentieth of a millimeter thick. MMS and associated electronics have come a long way.


I would like to see a matrix of non-GPS tracking system vs % error over distance or time. ie - after walking 500m in a non-linear direction, in a non-GPS environment, how many meters are you off actual location.


I believe the NAVSOP approach will replace GPS. There are several companies working on a local navigation system which uses 'signals of opportunity,' like radio, TV, wifi, cell towers, and microwaves, all with relatively strong signals (compared to GPS) and with fixed transmission locations.


I think there would be some drift with something like this in part because a compass is magnetic and can be susceptible to some interference.

Even if it were nearly 100% accurate I don't see it replacing GPS entirely (starting location still needs to be known for one) but I think its a great idea for this application (taking over for a bit when GPS signal is lost).

It would also be a good platform to sanity check the GPS signal itself against tampering. I hope to see this in consumer tech soon. Even a rudimentary implementation would be more useful than assuming you are stopped as soon as GPS signal is lost.


If this capablity is what they are prepared to release, it makes one wonder just what they are capable of in areas still closed to the public!

Regarding this specific device, fit it with a transmitter, or digital storage and it does not take too much imagination to see all sorts of 'wonderous' applications for such a small, easilty hidden device. Imagine a situation where 'a night out with the boys' had to be just that because you knew that your wife would know exactly when it had turned into a night in with just one girl, instead!

Mel Tisdale

as an atv and motorcycle rider and back road driver; i've always had problems with tree canopys and canyons getting gps signals...this will be a real boon if those problems are solved.


@Diachi: "some drift with something like this in part because a compass is magnetic" Read it again - TIMU relies on 3 axes of accelerometer and 3 of gyro, a purly inertial navigation platform, not a magnetic compass. Yes, there is drift, but it is rest to "truth" whenever it can access GPS.

@Wombat56: A little thicker than 1/20 mm, because it is six layers of that thickness, but still a MEMS marvel!

David Bell

Pity they only used movement sensors - doesn't sound so hard to include magnetic field ones as well, and possibly also radio, and to have included some camera interfaces, plus possibly passive/active audio... but then... that would have created something capable of being significantly more accurate than GPS alone, which is probably something mil types don't want civi types to have.


I think you will find that a mix of signals originating both terrestrially and extra-terrestrially using the current GPS technology has already been selected for use at the US military missile test range and the technology used for the ground stations has been developed by a company out of Canberra.


This article leaves me on my appetite. There is certainly a wow factor. However, I would have liked to hear more about the technology used to implement gyroscopes and accelerometers in such a small package. I remember the first trials of inertial navigation in aviation. I remember a mention of an accuracy of about 1 nautical mile on a trans-pacific flight. I also remember reading about a gyroscope without moving parts. If memory serves, it used coiled kilometer-length optical fibers. The motion detection was achieved by timing light pulses traveling the length of the fiber.

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