A Guide to Gyroscopes
Gyroscopes are the key part of any inertial navigation system. They were invented more than a century ago and are used as a reference point to understand the inertial point of a moving body. From small ships to advanced spacecraft, quality gyroscopes have proven to play a major factor in the performance of a mission. In many cases, the gyroscope has been a ‘make or break’ device. As gyroscopes have evolved, so too have their applications. They have a vast and diverse array of applications, ranging from monitoring the orientation of an aircraft, or guiding an unmanned aircraft during flight, to stabilizing the frames of a camera. Other areas where gyroscopes are used include ballistic missiles, guiding the process of building runnels, fire control systems, satellite navigation, and more.
The classic gyroscope consists of a spinning wheel or disc that works based on the principle of conservation of angular momentum. The rotation of the spinning axis remains unaffected due to this principle. As technology has evolved, many other types of gyroscopes were developed to provide more accurate and consistent outputs. Throughout this process, as more potential uses for gyroscopes were identified, the need to develop compact, low-cost gyroscopes was realized. This has led to the development of many new types of gyroscopes, such as ring laser gyroscopes, fiber optics gyroscopes, dynamically tuned gyroscopes, and MEMS gyroscopes.
Ring laser and fiber optic gyroscopes operate on the same principle, the Sagnac effect. The Sagnac effect involves a beam of light being split into two and the two beams being made to follow the same path in opposite directions. Upon return to the point of entry, the two light beams are allowed to exit the ring and undergo interference. The relative phases of the two beams, and thus the position of the interference fringes, are shifted according to the angular velocity of the apparatus. The fringe pattern is observed and, based on the pattern, the rotation of the gyro platform can be calculated. In the ring laser gyroscope, the ring is part of the laser, while in the fiber optic gyroscope, light from an external laser is funneled through a fiber optic cable.
A dynamically tuned gyroscope is a type of mechanical gyroscope. Gyros of this type contain a rotor held between free pivots. At a predetermined speed, known as the tuning speed, the rotor is free from torque due to the rotation and can therefore be used as a conventional or ideal gyroscope to measure rotation/rotary displacement from a gimbal. This is a necessary condition for the working of a gyroscope.
The third type of gyroscope is the MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical System) gyroscope. The sensing structures of MEMS gyroscopes range from 1 to 100 micrometers. They use a vibrating element for rate measurement and operate based on the idea of the Foucault pendulum. The basic principle is that any vibrating body tends to continue vibrating in its plane of vibration. Because of this, if the orientation of the platform to which the vibrating body is attached changes, the vibrating body exerts a force on the platform. This force can then be measured and used to find the output. MEMS gyroscopes were initially used in military applications but have since been adopted for commercial uses.
MEMS gyroscopes offer many advantages, particularly over ring laser and fiber optic gyroscopes. For one, they are extremely space efficient and available in the form of chips, meaning they can be fitted onto electronic circuits. Second, they offer very desirable performance characteristics. As technology evolves, the performance of MEMS gyroscopes is evolving as well. Third, they are completely maintenance free due to the lack of moving components found in other types of gyroscopes. Finally, they are available for much lower costs than ring laser and fiber optic gyroscopes.
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