What Is an IMU?

An illustration of a navigation system with an IMU sensor

Picture this: you’re holding your smartphone, playing a game that lets you maneuver a character by tilting the device. It feels like magic, right? But have you ever wondered what makes this possible? The answer lies in a tiny device called an inertial measurement unit, or IMU. “What is an IMU?” you might ask. IMUs are the unsung heroes of the modern world, responsible for countless applications in various industries. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the fascinating world of IMUs, exploring their components, functions, and practical uses.

Do you know what your smartphone, an autonomous vehicle, and a drone have in common? They all rely on IMUs to provide accurate and reliable information about their motion and orientation. “What is an IMU?” in these contexts, you may wonder. IMUs are essential for a wide range of applications, from consumer electronics to aerospace and robotics. Buckle up as we uncover the secrets behind these amazing devices and how they impact our daily lives.

Key Takeaways

  • IMUs are composed of accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers which measure linear acceleration, angular velocity and the Earth’s magnetic field respectively.

  • IMUs are widely utilized in many industries for applications such as consumer electronics, automotive systems, aerospace and robotics.

  • They offer a range of advantages including small size & compatibility with other sensors but have limitations such as susceptibility to errors & need for additional sensors.

Understanding IMUs: Components and Functions

An illustration of an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) with its components: accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnetometers

At the heart of an inertial measurement unit (IMU) lies a combination of three essential components: accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers. These inertial measurement unit sensors work together to measure linear acceleration, angular velocity, and the Earth’s magnetic field. This data enables IMUs, also known as inertial measurement units, to provide valuable insights into an object’s motion and orientation, serving as a foundation for numerous applications.

But how do these components operate? We’ll delve into the role of each one, unveiling their distinct functions.


Accelerometers are essential mems inertial sensors that measure linear acceleration along three axes. By capturing this data, accelerometers help determine an object’s position and movement. These motion sensors come in different forms, with MEMS accelerometers being the most common. A MEMS accelerometer consists of a mass suspended by a spring, which measures linear acceleration along the sensitivity axis.

The widespread use of accelerometers in consumer electronics is due to their affordability and reliability. From smartphones to gaming consoles, these cheap and reliable sensors are responsible for detecting motion and providing accurate acceleration measurements for various devices.


Gyroscopes, on the other hand, measure angular velocity around three axes. This information is crucial for determining an object’s rotation and orientation. Gyroscopes come in various forms, including:

  • Mechanical gyroscopes

  • Fiber-optic gyroscopes

  • Ring laser gyroscopes

  • MEMS gyroscopes, which are known for their ability to measures angular velocity with high precision

Mechanical gyroscopes are considered the most advanced type available, offering exceptional in-run bias stabilities of less than 0.0001 °/hour. However, MEMS gyroscopes, a product of MEMS technology, are more commonly used in consumer electronics due to their compact size and cost-effectiveness.


Magnetometers are the third key component of IMUs, responsible for measuring the Earth’s magnetic field. By providing heading information, magnetometers supplement orientation data derived from accelerometers and gyroscopes.

The ability to measure the Earth’s magnetic field makes magnetometers essential for navigation systems and other applications requiring accurate heading data. With these three components working in tandem, IMUs can deliver comprehensive motion and orientation information for a wide range of applications.

Applications of IMU Sensors

An illustration of a consumer electronic device with an IMU sensor

IMU sensors have become indispensable in many industries, with applications ranging from:

  • consumer electronics

  • automotive systems

  • aerospace

  • robotics

Their versatility and accuracy make them a popular choice for determining position, orientation, and motion in various scenarios.

We’ll examine some prevalent uses of IMU sensors, highlighting their value across various sectors.

Consumer Electronics

In the realm of consumer electronics, IMUs are found in devices like smartphones, tablets, and gaming systems. These devices use IMUs for motion tracking and gesture recognition, enabling users to interact seamlessly with their gadgets. For instance, when you tilt your smartphone to switch between portrait and landscape mode, the IMU sensors detect the change in orientation and adjust the display accordingly.

Another example is the use of IMUs in gaming consoles, where they enable motion-controlled games that track player movements and translate them into in-game actions. Some examples of how IMUs are used in gaming consoles include:

  • Navigating a virtual environment

  • Swinging a virtual tennis racket

  • Performing virtual dance moves

  • Steering a virtual car

IMUs have transformed the way we interact with technology in the gaming industry.

Automotive Industry

In the automotive industry, IMUs play a vital role in improving vehicle safety and performance. They are employed for navigation, stability control, and collision avoidance systems. For example, IMU sensors provide data to anti-lock braking systems (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC) systems, which help prevent skidding and maintain vehicle control during sudden maneuvers.

IMUs are also essential for the development of autonomous vehicles, offering accurate and reliable data for navigation and obstacle detection. As autonomous driving technology continues to evolve, the role of IMUs in the automotive industry is only set to grow.

Aerospace and Robotics

In aerospace and robotics, IMUs are crucial for guidance, navigation, control, and stabilization systems. For instance, drones rely on IMUs to maintain stable flight and accurately follow their flight paths. In robotics, IMUs are used for precise positioning of robotic arms in manufacturing settings and as feedback sensors in articulated robots.

In the aerospace sector, IMUs play a critical role in guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) systems for high-speed and high-acceleration applications. From satellites to fighter jets, the accurate and reliable data provided by IMUs is vital for mission success.

How IMUs Work: Data Processing and Sensor Fusion

An illustration of a data processing system with an IMU sensor

Image from Arduino showing the acceleration measurements (accelerometer), and rotational measurements (gryoscope).

IMUs output raw data that requires processing and fusion with other sensors to provide accurate and reliable information about an object’s motion and orientation. Data processing involves filtering, calibrating, and integrating the raw data from the IMU sensors to derive meaningful insights. Sensor fusion is a technique that combines data from multiple sensors, such as IMUs, GNSS receivers, and cameras, to improve accuracy and reduce errors.

Next, we will delve deeper into data processing and sensor fusion techniques, illuminating their contribution to IMU performance and reliability.

Data Processing

Data processing is a crucial step in transforming the raw data from IMU sensors into useful information. For instance, to obtain linear displacement data, the accelerometer’s output must be integrated twice. Similarly, to acquire angular displacement data, the gyroscope’s output must be integrated.

During data processing, filtering techniques are applied to remove noise and calibrate the sensor data. This step ensures that the processed data is accurate and reliable, providing a solid foundation for further analysis and integration with other sensors.

Sensor Fusion Techniques

Sensor fusion is a method that amalgamates data from various sensors to offer a more in-depth and precise depiction of the object or environment under surveillance. By integrating data from various sensors, sensor fusion reduces uncertainty and increases the reliability of the obtained information. This leads to enhanced accuracy and decreased errors in the IMU data.

One common sensor fusion technique is the Attitude Heading Reference System (AHRS), which combines an IMU with sensor fusion software to provide accurate measures of orientation and heading. By incorporating sensor fusion techniques, IMUs can achieve higher levels of accuracy and reliability in their motion tracking and orientation data.

Popular IMU Devices and Their Specifications

With the wide range of IMUs available in the market, it can be challenging to decide which device best suits your needs. Popular options include:

  • SparkFun Breakout ICM-20948: a low-cost IMU

  • Raspberry Pi-compatible IMUs with altimeters

  • Plug-and-play USB IMUs for easy integration into various systems

In this part, we’ll examine these popular IMU devices in depth and discuss their specifications to aid you in making a knowledgeable choice.

Low-cost IMUs

An illustration of a low-cost IMU device

Low-cost IMUs, such as the SparkFun Breakout ICM-20948, offer essential motion tracking features at an affordable price. These devices are suitable for hobbyists and those looking for a cost-effective solution for basic motion sensing applications.

While low-cost IMUs may not provide the same level of accuracy and precision as their more expensive counterparts, they still offer a viable option for many projects requiring motion tracking and gesture recognition.

Raspberry Pi-Compatible IMUs

A image of a Raspberry Pi Compatible IMU

Raspberry Pi-compatible IMUs offer seamless integration with the popular single-board computer platform. Devices like the BerryGPS-IMU v4 and the BerryIMUv3 are designed to work with Raspberry Pi boards, providing data from sensors such as accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers.

In addition to motion tracking, some Raspberry Pi-compatible IMUs also feature altimeters, providing supplemental altitude data for projects requiring elevation information.

Plug-and-Play USB IMUs

A USB plug and Play IMU

Plug-and-play USB IMUs simplify integration with various systems, making them suitable for a wide range of applications. These devices can be easily connected to a computer via USB without the need for additional configuration or drivers, offering the capability to measure velocity, orientation, and magnetism through the use of accelerometers, gyroscopes, and other sensors.

While plug-and-play USB IMUs may have a limited range and sensitivity compared to other imu sensor options, they still provide a convenient and versatile solution for many motion sensing applications, utilizing imu sensor data effectively.

Limitations and Advantages of IMUs

As with any technology, IMUs have their limitations and advantages. While IMUs are susceptible to accumulated errors, drift, and the need for additional sensors to achieve accurate position solutions, they also offer numerous benefits, such as their compact size, compatibility with other sensors, and the ability to provide valuable motion and orientation data for various applications.

We’ll probe deeper into the constraints and benefits of IMUs for a more detailed understanding.


An illustration of a navigation system with an IMU sensor

One of the main limitations of IMUs is the accumulated error that can arise from the integration of noisy signals, leading to drift in the position level. This drift can be a significant issue for unaided navigation systems, making it necessary to employ additional sensors, such as GNSS receivers and cameras, to acquire position data and reset any accumulated errors.

Despite these limitations, IMUs still offer valuable motion and orientation data for various applications. By understanding and accounting for these drawbacks, engineers and developers can harness the potential of IMUs while minimizing their impact on system performance.


IMUs provide several advantages that make them an attractive choice for many applications. Some of these advantages include:

  • Small size

  • Compatibility with other sensors

  • Easy integration into various systems

  • Accurate and reliable information about motion and orientation

These advantages make IMUs a valuable tool in many industries and applications.

Furthermore, IMUs can measure multiple degrees of freedom, making them suitable for a wide range of applications, from consumer electronics to aerospace and robotics. As technology continues to advance, IMUs will undoubtedly play an even more critical role in our everyday lives.


Inertial measurement units (IMUs) are incredibly versatile devices that allow us to track motion and orientation for a wide range of applications, from smartphones and gaming consoles to robotics and aerospace systems. Comprised of accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers, IMUs provide valuable data that can be processed and combined using sensor fusion techniques to yield accurate and reliable information about an object’s motion and orientation.

While IMUs have their limitations, such as drift and accumulated error, their advantages, including compact size and compatibility with other sensors, make them indispensable for many industries. As our world becomes increasingly connected and automated, IMUs will continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of technology.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an IMU used for?

An Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) is a device that measures and reports a body’s specific force, angular rate and orientation using a combination of accelerometers, gyroscopes and sometimes magnetometers. It is used to convert inertia, which is a resistance to changing direction, into output data that describes the motion of an object for use in other systems, such as vehicle control.

What does IMU stand for robotics?

An Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) is an electronic device that measures and reports specific force, angular rate and orientation using a combination of accelerometers, gyroscopes and sometimes magnetometers. This device is essential for mobile robot navigation, allowing it to accurately calculate position, orientation and acceleration.

What is the inertial unit of measurement?

An Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) is a device that measures and reports the specific gravity and angular rate of an attached object. It typically consists of gyroscopes for measuring angular rate and accelerometers for measuring specific force/acceleration, making it an important inertial unit of measurement.

What are the main components of an IMU?

An IMU is composed of accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnetometers, which together provide a full range of measurements for motion tracking.

How do IMU sensors contribute to motion tracking in smartphones and gaming devices?

IMU sensors enable motion tracking by detecting changes in motion and orientation, allowing for functions like screen rotation and motion-controlled gaming.


Related Posts

Don't Miss Out!

Get the latest news, tutorials, reviews and more direct to your inbox when you subscribe!