Dead Reckoning

Historically foundational in navigation, dead reckoning determines position from a known location, travel direction, and distance. Originating from the concept of deduction, its principles continue to influence domains such as robotics.


Dead reckoning is a method used to estimate one’s current position based on a previously known position, the course one has steered, the distance one has traveled, and the time elapsed since the last known position.

Etymology and Origin

The term “dead reckoning” derived from “deduced reckoning” or “ded. reckoning”. Historically, navigators in open seas, where landmarks were not visible, depended on this method.

Central Characteristics

  • Independence from External References: Dead reckoning operates without the need for landmarks, stars, satellites, or other external cues.
  • Error Accumulation: Successive estimations in dead reckoning compound any existing inaccuracies since each new estimation relies on the accuracy of the previous one.
  • Simplicity and Universality: Dead reckoning, unattached to specific technology or tools, has found use across various cultures and epochs.
  • Adaptive Nature: Mariners and pilots, while using dead reckoning, also combined it with tools like sextants or star navigation to refine position estimates.


Dead reckoning served as one of the primary navigation methods before the widespread availability of advanced navigational tools.

Limitations and Considerations

  • Accumulative Errors: Continuous navigation without periodic position checks or references can lead to significant deviations from the actual path.
  • Environmental Factors: Influences such as drift caused by currents or winds and speed changes can affect the method’s accuracy. Furthermore, it doesn’t preempt unforeseen obstacles or environmental alterations.

Relevance in Modern Context

Although current technological advancements offer more precise positioning methods, dead reckoning still finds use in situations where these technologies are unattainable. In robotics, for instance, dead reckoning can provide initial position estimates before refined measurements are taken.


  • Maritime Scenario: If a ship moving north determines its speed to be consistent, it would deduce its position northwards from the start based on elapsed time and speed. Over time, without external checks, the estimated position might drift from the actual position due to currents.
  • Air Navigation: A pilot, flying eastwards and monitoring the speed, would deduce their position east of the starting point after a specific duration. This estimate could be affected by factors like wind speed and direction.