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Navigation is the process of reading, and controlling the movement of a craft or vehicle from one place to another.[1] It is also the term of art used for the specialized knowledge used by navigators to perform navigation tasks. The word navigate is derived from the Latin "navigare", meaning "to sail".[1] All navigational techniques involve locating the navigator's position compared to known locations or patterns.

For lessons on Guidance (Navigation), follow this link.

Basic concepts


The latitude of a place on the earth's surface is the angular distance north or south of the [equator].[2] Latitude is usually expressed in degrees (marked with °) ranging from 0° at the Equator to 90° at the North and South poles.[2] The latitude of the North Pole is 90° N, and the latitude of the South Pole is 90° S.[2] Historically, mariners calculated latitude in the Northern Hemisphere by sighting the North Star Polaris with a sextant and sight reduction tables to take out error for height of eye and atmospheric refraction. Generally, the height of Polaris in degrees of arc above the horizon is the latitude of the observer.


Similar to latitude, the longitude of a place on the earth's surface is the angular distance east or west of the prime meridian or Greenwich meridian.[2] Longitude is usually expressed in degrees (marked with °) ranging from 0° at the Greenwich meridian to 180° east and west. Sydney, Australia, for example, has a longitude of about 151° east. New York City has a longitude of about 74° west. For most of history, mariners struggled to determine precise longitude. The problem was solved with the invention of the marine chronometer. Longitude can be calculated if the precise time of a sextant sighting is known.

Modern technique

Most modern navigation relies primarily on positions determined electronically by receivers collecting information from satellites. Most other modern techniques rely on crossing lines of position or LOP.[3] A line of position can refer to two different things: a line on a chart and a line between the observer and an object in real life.[4] A bearing is a measure of the direction to an object.[4] If the navigator measures the direction in real life, the angle can then be drawn on a nautical chart and the navigator will be on that line on the chart.[4]

In addition to bearings, navigators also often measure distances to objects.[3] On the chart, a distance produces a circle or arc of position.[3] Circles, arcs, and hyperbolae of positions are often referred to as lines of position. If the navigator draws two lines of position, and they intersect he must be at that position.[3] A fix is the intersection of two or more LOPs.[3] If only one line of position is available, this may be evaluated against the dead reckoning position to establish an estimated position.[5] Lines (or circles) of position can be derived from a variety of sources:

  • celestial observation (a short segment of the circle of equal altitude, but generally represented as a line),
  • terrestrial range (natural or man made) when two charted points are observed to be in line with each other,[6]
  • compass bearing to a charted object,
  • radar range to a charted object,
  • on certain coastlines, a depth sounding from echo sounder or hand lead line.

There are some methods seldom used today such as "dipping a light" to calculate the geographic range from observer to lighthouse Methods of navigation have changed through history.[7] Each new method has enhanced the mariner’s ability to complete his voyage.[7] One of the most important judgments the navigator must make is the best method to use.[7]

Dead reckoning

The navigator plots his 9am position, indicated by the triangle, and, using his course and speed, estimates his position at 9:30am and 10am. Dead reckoning is the process of estimating present position by projecting course and speed from a known past position.[8] It is also used to predict a future position by projecting course and speed from a known present position.[8] The DR position is only an approximate position because it does not allow for the effect of leeway, current, helmsman error, compass error, or any other external influences.[8]

The navigator uses dead reckoning in many ways, such as:[8]

  • to determine sunrise and sunset,
  • to predict landfall, sighting lights and arrival times,
  • to evaluate the accuracy of electronic positioning information,
  • to predict which celestial bodies will be available for future observation.

The most important use of dead reckoning is to project the position of the ship into the immediate future and avoid hazards to navigation.[8] The navigator carefully tends the DR plot, updating it when required, and uses it to evaluate external forces acting on the ship. The navigator also consults the DR plot to avoid navigation hazards.[8] A fix taken at each DR position will reveal the effects of current, wind, and steering error, and allow the navigator to stay on track by correcting for them.[8]

The use of DR when an Electronic Charts Display and Information System (ECDIS) is the primary plotting method will vary with the type of system. An ECDIS allows the display of the ship’s heading projected out to some future position as a function of time, the display of waypoint information, and progress toward each waypoint in turn.[8]

Until ECDIS is proven to provide the level of safety and accuracy required, the use of a traditional DR plot on paper charts is a prudent backup, especially in restricted waters.[8]

Before the development of the lunar distance method or the marine chronometer, dead reckoning was the primary method of determining longitude available to mariners such as Christopher Columbus and John Cabot on their trans-Atlantic voyages.


Piloting (also called pilotage) involves navigating a vessel in restricted waters and fixing its position as precisely as possible at frequent intervals.[9] More so than in other phases of navigation, proper preparation and attention to detail are important.[9] Procedures vary from vessel to vessel, and between military, commercial, and private vessels.[9]

A military navigation team will nearly always consist of several people.[9] A military navigator might have bearing takers stationed at the gyro repeaters on the bridge wings for taking simultaneous bearings, while the civilian navigator must often take and plot them himself.[9] While the military navigator will have a bearing book and someone to record entries for each fix, the civilian navigator will simply pilot the bearings on the chart as they are taken and not record them at all.[9]

If the ship is equipped with an ECDIS, it is reasonable for the navigator to simply monitor the progress of the ship along the chosen track, visually ensuring that the ship is proceeding as desired, checking the compass, sounder and other indicators only occasionally.[9] If a pilot is aboard, as is often the case in the most restricted of waters, his judgement can generally be relied upon, further easing the workload.[9] But should the ECDIS fail, the navigator will have to rely on ===Celestial navigation=== Celestial navigation systems are based on observation of the positions of the Sun, Moon, Planets and navigational stars. Such systems are in use as well for terrestrial navigating as for interstellar navigating. By knowing which point on the rotating earth a celestial object is above and measuring its height above the observer's horizon, the navigator can determine his distance from that subpoint. A Nautical almanac and a chronometer are used to compute the subpoint on earth a celestial body is over, and a sextant is used to measure the body's angular height above the horizon. That height can then be used to compute distance from the subpoint to create a circular line of position. A navigator shoots a number of stars in succession to give a series of overlapping lines of position. Where they intersect is the celestial fix. The moon and sun may also be used. The sun can also be used by itself to shoot a succession of lines of position (best done around local noon) to determine a position. [10]

Marine chronometer

In order to accurately measure longitude, the precise time of a sextant sighting (down to the second, if possible) must be recorded. Each second of error is equivalent to 15 seconds of longitude error, which at the equator is a position error of .29 mile, about the accuracy limit of manual celestial navigation.

The spring-driven marine chronometer is a precision timepiece used aboard ship to provide accurate time for celestial observations.[10] A chronometer differs from a spring-driven watch principally in that it contains a variable lever device to maintain even pressure on the mainspring, and a special balance designed to compensate for temperature variations.[10] A spring-driven chronometer is set approximately to Greenwich mean time (GMT) and is not reset until the instrument is overhauled and cleaned, usually at three-year intervals.[10] The difference between GMT and chronometer time is carefully determined and applied as a correction to all chronometer readings.[10] Spring-driven chronometers must be wound at about the same time each day.[10]

Quartz crystal marine chronometers have replaced spring-driven chronometers aboard many ships because of their greater accuracy.[10] They are maintained on GMT directly from radio time signals.[10] This eliminates chronometer error and watch error corrections.[10] Should the second hand be in error by a readable amount, it can be reset electrically.[10]

The basic element for time generation is a quartz crystal oscillator.[10] The quartz crystal is temperature compensated and is hermetically sealed in an evacuated envelope.[10] A calibrated adjustment capability is provided to adjust for the aging of the crystal.[10]

The chronometer is designed to operate for a minimum of 1 year on a single set of batteries.[10] Observations may be timed and ship’s clocks set with a comparing watch, which is set to chronometer time and taken to the bridge wing for recording sight times.[10] In practice, a wrist watch coordinated to the nearest second with the chronometer will be adequate.[10]

A stop watch, either spring wound or digital, may also be used for celestial observations.[10] In this case, the watch is started at a known GMT by chronometer, and the elapsed time of each sight added to this to obtain GMT of the sight.[10]

All chronometers and watches should be checked regularly with a radio time signal.[10] Times and frequencies of radio time signals are listed in publications such as Radio Navigational Aids.[10]

The marine sextant

The marine sextant is used to measure the elevation of celestial bodies above the horizon.

The second critical component of celestial navigation is to measure the angle formed at the observer's eye between the celestial body and the sensible horizon. The sextant, an optical instrument, is used to perform this function. The sextant consists of two primary assemblies. The frame is a rigid triangular structure with a pivot at the top and a graduated segment of a circle, referred to as the "arc", at the bottom. The second component is the index arm, which is attached to the pivot at the top of the frame. At the bottom is an endless vernier which clamps into teeth on the bottom of the "arc". The optical system consists of two mirrors and, generally, a low power telescope. One mirror, referred to as the "index mirror" is fixed to the top of the index arm, over the pivot. As the index arm is moved, this mirror rotates, and the graduated scale on the arc indicates the measured angle ("altitude").

The second mirror, referred to as the "horizon glass", is fixed to the front of the frame. One half of the horizon glass is silvered and the other half is clear. Light from the celestial body strikes the index mirror and is reflected to the silvered portion of the horizon glass, then back to the observer's eye through the telescope. The observer manipulates the index arm so the reflected image of the body in the horizon glass is just resting on the visual horizon, seen through the clear side of the horizon glass.

Adjustment of the sextant consists of checking and aligning all the optical elements to eliminate "index correction". Index correction should be checked, using the horizon or more preferably a star, each time the sextant is used. The practice of taking celestial observations from the deck of a rolling ship, often through cloud cover and with a hazy horizon, is by far the most challenging part of celestial navigation.

Inertial navigation

Inertial navigation is a dead reckoning type of navigation system that computes its position based on motion sensors. Once the initial latitude and longitude is established, the system receives impulses from motion detectors that measure the acceleration along three or more axes enabling it continually and accurately to calculate the current latitude and longitude. Its advantages over other navigation systems are that, once the starting position is set, it does not require outside information, it is not affected by adverse weather conditions and it cannot be detected or jammed by the enemy. Its disadvantage is that since the current position is calculated solely from previous positions, its errors are cumulative, increasing at a rate roughly proportional to the time since the initial position was input. So inertial navigation systems must be corrected frequently with a location 'fix' from some other type of navigation system. The US Navy developed a Ships Inertial Navigation System (SINS) during the Polaris missile program to insure a safe, reliable and accurate navigation system for its missile submarines.

Inertial navigation systems were in wide use until satellite navigation systems (GPS) became available.

Electronic navigation

Radio navigation

A radio direction finder or RDF is a device for finding the direction to a radio source. Due to radio's ability to travel very long distances "over the horizon", it makes a particularly good navigation system for ships and aircraft that might be flying at a distance from land. RDFs works by rotating a directional antenna and listening for the direction in which the signal from a known station comes through most strongly. This sort of system was widely used in the 1930s and 1940s. RDF antennas are easy to spot on German World War II aircraft, as loops under the rear section of the fuselage, whereas most US aircraft enclosed the antenna in a small teardrop-shaped fairing.

In navigational applications, RDF signals are provided in the form of radio beacons, the radio version of a lighthouse. The signal is typically a simple AM broadcast of a morse code series of letters, which the RDF can tune in to see if the beacon is "on the air". Most modern detectors can also tune in any commercial radio stations, which is particularly useful due to their high power and location near major cities.

Decca, OMEGA, and LORAN-C are three similar hyperbolic navigation systems. Decca was a hyperbolic low frequency radio navigation system (also known as multilateration) that was first deployed during World War II when the Allied forces needed a system which could be used to achieve accurate landings. As was the case with Loran C, its primary use was for ship navigation in coastal waters. Fishing vessels were major post-war users, but it was also used on aircraft, including a very early (1949) application of moving-map displays. The system was deployed in the North Sea and was used by helicopters operating to oil platforms.

The OMEGA Navigation System was the first truly global radio navigation system for aircraft, operated by the United States in cooperation with six partner nations. OMEGA was developed by the United States Navy for military aviation users. It was approved for development in 1968 and promised a true worldwide oceanic coverage capability with only eight transmitters and the ability to achieve a four mile accuracy when fixing a position. Initially, the system was to be used for navigating nuclear bombers across the North Pole to Russia. Later, it was found useful for submarines.[1] Due to the success of the Global Positioning System the use of Omega declined during the 1990s, to a point where the cost of operating Omega could no longer be justified. Omega was terminated on September 30, 1997 and all stations ceased operation.

LORAN is a terrestrial navigation system using low frequency radio transmitters that use the time interval between radio signals received from three or more stations to determine the position of a ship or aircraft. The current version of LORAN in common use is LORAN-C, which operates in the low frequency portion of the EM spectrum from 90 to 110 kHz. Many nations are users of the system, including the United States, Japan, and several European countries. Russia uses a nearly exact system in the same frequency range, called CHAYKA. LORAN use is in steep decline, with GPS being the primary replacement. However, there are attempts to enhance and re-popularize LORAN. LORAN signals are less susceptible to interference and can penetrate better into foliage and buildings than GPS signals.

Radar navigation

When a vessel is within radar range of land or special radar aids to navigation, the navigator can take distances and angular bearings to charted objects and use these to establish arcs of position and lines of position on a chart.[11] A fix consisting of only radar information is called a radar fix.[12] Types of radar fixes include "range and bearing to a single object,"[13] "two or more bearings,"[13] "tangent bearings,"[13] and "two or more ranges."[13] Parallel indexing is a technique defined by William Burger in the 1957 book The Radar Observer's Handbook.[14] This technique involves creating a line on the screen that is parallel to the ship's course, but offset to the left or right by some distance.[14] This parallel line allows the navigator to maintain a given distance away from hazards.[14]

Some techniques have been developed for special situations. One, known as the "contour method," involves marking a transparent plastic template on the radar screen and moving it to the chart to fix a position.[15]

Another special technique, known as the Franklin Continuous Radar Plot Technique, involves drawing the path a radar object should follow on the radar display if the ship stays on its planned course.[16] During the transit, the navigator can check that the ship is on track by checking that the pip lies on the drawn line.[16]

Satellite navigation

Global Navigation Satellite System or GNSS is the term for satellite navigation systems that provide positioning with global coverage. A GNSS allow small electronic receivers to determine their location (longitude, latitude, and altitude) to within a few metres using time signals transmitted along a line of sight by radio from satellites. Receivers on the ground with a fixed position can also be used to calculate the precise time as a reference for scientific experiments. As of 2007, the United States NAVSTAR Global Positioning System (GPS) is the only fully operational GNSS. The Russian GLONASS is a GNSS in the process of being restored to full operation. The European Union's Galileo positioning system is a next generation GNSS in the initial deployment phase, scheduled to be operational in 2010. China has indicated it may expand its regional Beidou navigation system into a global system.

More than two dozen GPS satellites are in medium Earth orbit, transmitting signals allowing GPS receivers to determine the receiver's location, speed and direction.

Since the first experimental satellite was launched in 1978, GPS has become an indispensable aid to navigation around the world, and an important tool for map-making and land surveying. GPS also provides a precise time reference used in many applications including scientific study of earthquakes, and synchronization of telecommunications networks.

Developed by the United States Department of Defense, GPS is officially named NAVSTAR GPS (NAVigation Satellite Timing And Ranging Global Positioning System). The satellite constellation is managed by the United States Air Force 50th Space Wing. The cost of maintaining the system is approximately US$750 million per year,[17] including the replacement of aging satellites, and research and development. Despite this fact, GPS is free for civilian use as a public good.


  • Bowditch, Nathaniel (2002). The American Practical Navigator. Bethesda, MD: National Imagery and Mapping Agency. ISBN 0939837544.
  • Cutler, Thomas J. (December 2003). Dutton's Nautical Navigation (15th ed.). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1557502483.
  • Department of the Air Force (March 2001) (PDF). Air Navigation. Department of the Air Force. Retrieved on 2007-04-17.
  • Great Britain Ministry of Defence (Navy) (1995). Admiralty Manual of Seamanship. The Stationery Office. ISBN 0117726966.
  • Maloney, Elbert S. (December 2003). Chapman Piloting and Seamanship (64th ed.). New York, NY: Hearst Communications Inc.. ISBN 1-58816-098-0.
  • National Imagery and Mapping Agency (2001) (PDF). Publication 1310: Radar Navigation and Maneuvering Board Manual (7th edition ed.). Bethesda, MD: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • Turpin, Edward A.; McEwen, William A. (1980). Merchant Marine Officers' Handbook (4th ed.). Centreville, MD: Cornell Maritime Press. ISBN 0-87038-056-X.
  • Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). "Navigation". Encyclopædia Britannica. 19 (11th edition ed.). Retrieved on 2007-04-17.

External links

Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). "Pytheas". Encyclopædia Britannica. 22 (11th edition ed.). Retrieved on 2007-04-17.