What Is an Altimeter?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

An altimeter is a altitude measurement device used by mountaineers, skydivers, pilots, satellites, and many others. The device’s general purpose is to tell its human or machine user how elevated from sea level it is. It performs this function via one of two ways: either by measuring the local air pressure using a barometer, or by bouncing radar off a target.

An altimeter is a device used to measure altitude.
An altimeter is a device used to measure altitude.

People have known for several centuries that a thin column of mercury attached to an open reservoir can be used to measure atmospheric pressure. Tiny changes in atmospheric pressure are indicated by the level of the mercury column. This common instrument is called a barometer.

The location of an altimeter on an instrument panel is usually directly in front of the pilot.
The location of an altimeter on an instrument panel is usually directly in front of the pilot.

At altitudes relatively close to sea level, air pressure varies uniformly with altitude. However, when altitude increases, air pressure decreases. So every 27 feet (8.23 m) that a person ascends above sea level, air pressure decreases by about a millibar, a unit of pressure that can be measured in inches of mercury. In this way, a barometer can be used as an altimeter. Because it is dependent on air pressure varying a uniform amount with increasing elevation, a device that uses mercury or even a more advanced aneroid barometer is not perfectly accurate, especially at higher altitudes. For high-altitude aerospace applications, and in any domain in which high accuracy is desired, a radar altimeter is used.

Crop duster pilots must pay close attention to their altitude, as they fly close to the ground.
Crop duster pilots must pay close attention to their altitude, as they fly close to the ground.

A high precision radar altimeter works by measuring the transit time of a radio wave between a target and an airplane or satellite. This allows for high altitude measurements and a degree of accuracy impossible with a barometer-based devices. Those that depend on radar can also measure the precise heights of natural objects, like mountains or ocean waves.

Satellites use altimeters.
Satellites use altimeters.

Radar altimetry has been used to verify the existence of rare “freak waves”, ocean waves several times higher than other waves. They are also used in all types of airplane navigation and make it possible for pilots to land their planes smoothly. The world's tallest peaks have been precisely measured using this method as well.

Freak waves are ocean waves that are several times higher than other waves.
Freak waves are ocean waves that are several times higher than other waves.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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