In a previous post I showed how the Filter for the IMU sensor combines both gyro and accelerometer data to get drift-free low noise information about the robots orientation in space. The filter performs a second function, it translates sensor output to a world frame of reference. In this post I’ll explain what I mean by that and how the filters works in this respect.

Body frame of reference versus the world frame of reference

Suppose you are standing upright facing north when somebody next to you asks you to turn right for 180 degrees. After you turned so you’ll be facing south. Clear enough. Now suppose you are lying on the ground face down and head pointing south. If you are asked again to turn right for 180 degrees by the same person you will have to consider two options regarding the meaning of the word right. The first option is that right should be in reference to your body. If you turn like this you’ll end up face up while still pointing north. The second option is to treat right in reference to the person that asked the question. If you turn like that you’ll end up still facing down but with the head pointing south.

The same goes with robots and the sensors they carry. Your robot might have a gyro that indicates that the robot turns clockwise, but if the robot is upside down you’ll see itt turning counter clockwise. This is because the robot and the gyro attached to it have a different reference than you have.
To distinguish between the two references we call the first one the body frame of reference and the second the world frame of reference. The world frame of reference is supposed to be inert, a global frame where everything can relate to. Words like up, down, north and south are related to the world frame of reference. The body frame of reference belongs to the robot and the sensors. When the robot moves its body frame of reference moves along with it. Robot commands like drive forward are always in respect to the body frame of reference. Likewise, data from the sensors are also expressed in the body frame of reference.
In robotics, you’ll frequently have to translate information from one frame of reference into the other. For example, when you calculate the position of the robot (world frame of reference) from data from the tachometer (body frame of reference). The process to translate information from one frame to another is called transformation.


A transformation requires the use of trigonometry. Suppose again that you want to calculate the position of the robot (world frame of reference) from data from the tachometer (body frame of reference). Let us assume that the tachometers indicate the the robot has travelled straight forward for 30 cm. In terms of body frame it is said that it moved over the x-axis with 30 cm and over the y-axis with 0 cm. Suppose the robot was facing east when it travelled and you have called the east to west axis the y-axis as is customary. It is clear then that in the world frame of reference the position of the robot increases by 30 cm along the y-axis and maintained its position along the x-axis. In mathematical terms the transformation from body frame to world frame is:

Xw = Xb * cos(a) - Yb * sin(a)
Yw = Xb * sin(a) + Yb * cos(a)

Where the parameter a stands for the angle between the robot (or better the body frame of reference) and the world. In the above example a=90, making cos(a)=0 and sin(a)=1. as a result the x and y values are swapped in the transformation.
Transforming sensor output to world frame of reference is the second function of the IMU filter. However, It does so in a 3D space and not in a 2D space as the example.

The preferred way to model a transformation mathematically is by using matrices and vectors.

This is the preferred way as it offers a convenient and short way to describe both the transformation and sensor output. Without going in too much detail, the transformation is stored in a transformation matrix of 3 by 3 elements. The sensor output is stored in a vector of 3 elements. To transform a vector from body frame of reference to world frame of reference one has to execute a matrix multiplication on the body vector using the transformation matrix. In mathematical terms:

Vw = Vb X T

Where T stands for transformation matrix. To go from world to body the formula is:

Vb = Vw X  Tinv

Where Tinv represents the inverse matrix of T.

Internally the filter maintains a transformation matrix. The robots current attitude can be calculated from the transformation matrix.