Gimbal lock is the loss of one degree of freedom in a three-dimensional, three-
gimbal A gimbal is a pivoted support that permits rotation of an object about an axis. A set of three gimbals, one mounted on the other with orthogonal pivot axes, may be used to allow an object mounted on the innermost gimbal to remain independent of ...
mechanism that occurs when the axes of two of the three gimbals are driven into a parallel configuration, "locking" the system into
rotation A rotation is a circular movement of an object around a center (or point) of rotation. The plane (geometry), geometric plane along which the rotation occurs is called the ''rotation plane'', and the imaginary line extending from the center an ...

in a degenerate two-dimensional space. The word ''lock'' is misleading: no gimbal is restrained. All three gimbals can still rotate freely about their respective axes of suspension. Nevertheless, because of the parallel orientation of two of the gimbals' axes there is no gimbal available to accommodate rotation about one axis.


A gimbal is a ring that is suspended so it can rotate about an axis. Gimbals are typically nested one within another to accommodate rotation about multiple axes. They appear in
gyroscope A gyroscope (from Ancient Greek γῦρος ''gûros'', "circle" and σκοπέω ''skopéō'', "to look") is a device used for measuring or maintaining Orientation (geometry), orientation and angular velocity. It is a spinning wheel or disc in ...
s and in inertial measurement units to allow the inner gimbal's orientation to remain fixed while the outer gimbal suspension assumes any orientation. In
flywheel energy storage Flywheel energy storage (FES) works by accelerating a rotor ( flywheel) to a very high speed and maintaining the energy in the system as rotational energy. When energy is extracted from the system, the flywheel's rotational speed is reduced as a ...
mechanisms they allow objects to remain upright. They are used to orient thrusters on rockets. Some coordinate systems in mathematics behave as if there were real gimbals used to measure the angles, notably
Euler angles (''N'') is shown in green The Euler angles are three angles introduced by Leonhard Euler to describe the Orientation (geometry), orientation of a rigid body with respect to a fixed coordinate system.Novi Commentarii academiae scientiarum Petropolit ...
. For cases of three or fewer nested gimbals, gimbal lock inevitably occurs at some point in the system due to properties of covering spaces (described below).

In engineering

While only two specific orientations produce exact gimbal lock, practical mechanical gimbals encounter difficulties near those orientations. When a set of gimbals is close to the locked configuration, small rotations of the gimbal platform require large motions of the surrounding gimbals. Although the ratio is infinite only at the point of gimbal lock, the practical speed and acceleration limits of the gimbals—due to inertia (resulting from the mass of each gimbal ring), bearing friction, the flow resistance of air or other fluid surrounding the gimbals (if they are not in a vacuum), and other physical and engineering factors—limit the motion of the platform close to that point.

In two dimensions

Gimbal lock can occur in gimbal systems with two degrees of freedom such as a theodolite with rotations about an
azimuth An azimuth (; from Arabic اَلسُّمُوت ''as-sumūt'', 'the directions', the plural form of the Arabic noun السَّمْت ''as-samt'', meaning 'the direction') is an angular measurement in a spherical coordinate system. The vector fr ...
and elevation in two dimensions. These systems can gimbal lock at zenith and nadir, because at those points azimuth is not well-defined, and rotation in the azimuth direction does not change the direction the theodolite is pointing. Consider tracking a helicopter flying towards the theodolite from the horizon. The theodolite is a telescope mounted on a tripod so that it can move in azimuth and elevation to track the helicopter. The helicopter flies towards the theodolite and is tracked by the telescope in elevation and azimuth. The helicopter flies immediately above the tripod (i.e. it is at zenith) when it changes direction and flies at 90 degrees to its previous course. The telescope cannot track this maneuver without a discontinuous jump in one or both of the gimbal orientations. There is no continuous motion that allows it to follow the target. It is in gimbal lock. So there is an infinity of directions around zenith for which the telescope cannot continuously track all movements of a target. Note that even if the helicopter does not pass through zenith, but only ''near'' zenith, so that gimbal lock does not occur, the system must still move exceptionally rapidly to track it, as it rapidly passes from one bearing to the other. The closer to zenith the nearest point is, the faster this must be done, and if it actually goes through zenith, the limit of these "increasingly rapid" movements becomes ''infinitely'' fast, namely discontinuous. To recover from gimbal lock the user has to go around the zenith – explicitly: reduce the elevation, change the azimuth to match the azimuth of the target, then change the elevation to match the target. Mathematically, this corresponds to the fact that
spherical coordinates File:3D Spherical 2.svg, 240px, Spherical coordinates as often used in ''mathematics'': radial distance , azimuthal angle , and polar angle . The meanings of and have been swapped compared to the physics convention. As in physics, (rho) is of ...
do not define a
coordinate chartIn topology, a branch of mathematics, a topological manifold is a topological space which locally resembles real numbers, real ''n''-dimension (mathematics), dimensional Euclidean space. Topological manifolds are an important class of topological spa ...
on the sphere at zenith and nadir. Alternatively, the corresponding map ''T''2→''S''2 from the
''T''2 to the sphere ''S''2 (given by the point with given azimuth and elevation) is not a
covering map
covering map
at these points.

In three dimensions

Gimbal lock: two out of the three gimbals are in the same plane, one degree of freedom is lost Consider a case of a level-sensing platform on an aircraft flying due north with its three gimbal axes mutually perpendicular (i.e., Roll (flight), roll, Pitch (aviation), pitch and Yaw angle, yaw angles each zero). If the aircraft pitches up 90 degrees, the aircraft and platform's yaw axis gimbal becomes parallel to the roll axis gimbal, and changes about yaw can no longer be compensated for.


This problem may be overcome by use of a fourth gimbal, actively driven by a motor so as to maintain a large angle between roll and yaw gimbal axes. Another solution is to rotate one or more of the gimbals to an arbitrary position when gimbal lock is detected and thus reset the device. Modern practice is to avoid the use of gimbals entirely. In the context of inertial navigation systems, that can be done by mounting the inertial sensors directly to the body of the vehicle (this is called a strapdown system) and integrating sensed rotation and acceleration digitally using quaternion methods to derive vehicle orientation and velocity. Another way to replace gimbals is to use fluid bearings or a flotation chamber.

On Apollo 11

A well-known gimbal lock incident happened in the Apollo 11 Moon mission. On this spacecraft, a set of gimbals was used on an inertial measurement unit (IMU). The engineers were aware of the gimbal lock problem but had declined to use a fourth gimbal. Some of the reasoning behind this decision is apparent from the following quote: They preferred an alternate solution using an indicator that would be triggered when near to 85 degrees pitch. Rather than try to drive the gimbals faster than they could go, the system simply gave up and froze the platform. From this point, the spacecraft would have to be manually moved away from the gimbal lock position, and the platform would have to be manually realigned using the stars as a reference. After the Lunar Module had landed, Michael Collins (astronaut), Mike Collins aboard the Command Module joked "How about sending me a fourth gimbal for Christmas?"


In robotics, gimbal lock is commonly referred to as "wrist flip", due to the use of a "triple-roll wrist" in robotic arms, where three axes of the wrist, controlling yaw, pitch, and roll, all pass through a common point. An example of a wrist flip, also called a wrist singularity, is when the path through which the robot is traveling causes the first and third axes of the robot's wrist to line up. The second wrist axis then attempts to spin 180° in zero time to maintain the orientation of the end effector. The result of a singularity can be quite dramatic and can have adverse effects on the robot arm, the end effector, and the process. The importance of avoiding singularities in robotics has led the American National Standard for Industrial Robots and Robot Systems – Safety Requirements to define it as "a condition caused by the collinear alignment of two or more robot axes resulting in unpredictable robot motion and velocities".ANSI/RIA R15.06-1999

In applied mathematics

The problem of gimbal lock appears when one uses
Euler angles (''N'') is shown in green The Euler angles are three angles introduced by Leonhard Euler to describe the Orientation (geometry), orientation of a rigid body with respect to a fixed coordinate system.Novi Commentarii academiae scientiarum Petropolit ...
in applied mathematics; developers of 3D computer programs, such as 3D modeling, inertial guidance system, embedded navigation systems, and video games must take care to avoid it. In formal language, gimbal lock occurs because the map from Euler angles to rotations (topologically, from the 3-torus ''T3'' to the real projective space RP3 which is the same as the space of 3d rotations SO3) is not a local homeomorphism at every point, and thus at some points the Rank (differential topology), rank (degrees of freedom) must drop below 3, at which point gimbal lock occurs. Euler angles provide a means for giving a numerical description of any
rotation A rotation is a circular movement of an object around a center (or point) of rotation. The plane (geometry), geometric plane along which the rotation occurs is called the ''rotation plane'', and the imaginary line extending from the center an ...

in three-dimensional space using three numbers, but not only is this description not unique, but there are some points where not every change in the target space (rotations) can be realized by a change in the source space (Euler angles). This is a topological constraint – there is no covering map from the 3-torus to the 3-dimensional real projective space; the only (non-trivial) covering map is from the 3-sphere, as in the use of quaternions. To make a comparison, all the translation (geometry), translations can be described using three numbers x, y, and z, as the succession of three consecutive linear movements along three perpendicular axes X, Y and Z axes. The same holds true for rotations: all the rotations can be described using three numbers \alpha, \beta, and \gamma, as the succession of three rotational movements around three axes that are perpendicular one to the next. This similarity between linear coordinates and angular coordinates makes Euler angles very intuition (knowledge), intuitive, but unfortunately they suffer from the gimbal lock problem.

Loss of a degree of freedom with Euler angles

A rotation in 3D space can be represented numerically with matrix (mathematics), matrices in several ways. One of these representations is: :\begin R &= \begin 1 & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & \cos \alpha & -\sin \alpha \\ 0 & \sin \alpha & \cos \alpha \end \begin \cos \beta & 0 & \sin \beta \\ 0 & 1 & 0 \\ -\sin \beta & 0 & \cos \beta \end \begin \cos \gamma & -\sin \gamma & 0 \\ \sin \gamma & \cos \gamma & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & 1 \end \end An example worth examining happens when \beta = \tfrac. Knowing that \cos \tfrac = 0 and \sin \tfrac = 1, the above expression becomes equal to: :\begin R &= \begin 1 & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & \cos \alpha & -\sin \alpha \\ 0 & \sin \alpha & \cos \alpha \end \begin 0 & 0 & 1 \\ 0 & 1 & 0 \\ -1 & 0 & 0 \end \begin \cos \gamma & -\sin \gamma & 0 \\ \sin \gamma & \cos \gamma & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & 1 \end \end Carrying out matrix multiplication: :\begin R &= \begin 0 & 0 & 1 \\ \sin \alpha & \cos \alpha & 0 \\ -\cos \alpha & \sin \alpha & 0 \end \begin \cos \gamma & -\sin \gamma & 0 \\ \sin \gamma & \cos \gamma & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & 1 \end &= \begin 0 & 0 & 1 \\ \sin \alpha \cos \gamma + \cos \alpha \sin \gamma & -\sin \alpha \sin \gamma + \cos \alpha \cos \gamma & 0 \\ -\cos \alpha \cos \gamma + \sin \alpha \sin \gamma & \cos \alpha \sin \gamma + \sin \alpha \cos \gamma & 0 \end \end And finally using the trigonometry formulas#Angle sum and difference identities, trigonometry formulas: :\begin R &= \begin 0 & 0 & 1 \\ \sin ( \alpha + \gamma ) & \cos (\alpha + \gamma) & 0 \\ -\cos ( \alpha + \gamma ) & \sin (\alpha + \gamma) & 0 \end \end Changing the values of \alpha and \gamma in the above matrix has the same effects: the rotation angle \alpha + \gamma changes, but the rotation axis remains in the Z direction: the last column and the first row in the matrix won't change. The only solution for \alpha and \gamma to recover different roles is to change \beta. It is possible to imagine an airplane rotated by the above-mentioned Euler angles using the X-Y-Z convention. In this case, the first angle - \alpha is the pitch. Yaw is then set to \tfrac and the final rotation - by \gamma - is again the airplane's pitch. Because of gimbal lock, it has lost one of the degrees of freedom - in this case the ability to roll. It is also possible to choose another convention for representing a rotation with a matrix using Euler angles than the X-Y-Z convention above, and also choose other variation intervals for the angles, but in the end there is always at least one value for which a degree of freedom is lost. The gimbal lock problem does not make Euler angles "invalid" (they always serve as a well-defined coordinate system), but it makes them unsuited for some practical applications.

Alternate orientation representation

The cause of gimbal lock is representing an orientation as three axial rotations with
Euler angles (''N'') is shown in green The Euler angles are three angles introduced by Leonhard Euler to describe the Orientation (geometry), orientation of a rigid body with respect to a fixed coordinate system.Novi Commentarii academiae scientiarum Petropolit ...
. A potential solution therefore is to represent the orientation in some other way. This could be as a rotation matrix, a quaternion (see quaternions and spatial rotation), or a similar orientation representation that treats the orientation as a value rather than three separate and related values. Given such a representation, the user stores the orientation as a value. To apply angular changes, the orientation is modified by a delta angle/axis rotation. The resulting orientation must be re-normalized to prevent Floating point#Accuracy problems, floating-point error from successive transformations from accumulating. For matrices, re-normalizing the result requires converting the matrix into its orthonormal matrix#Nearest orthogonal matrix, nearest orthonormal representation. For quaternions, re-normalization requires unit quaternions, performing quaternion normalization.

See also

* Charts on SO(3) * Flight dynamics * Grid north (equivalent navigational problem on polar expeditions) * Inertial navigation system * Motion planning * Quaternions and spatial rotation


External links

Gimbal Lock - Explained
at YouTube
Gimbal Lock in 30 Seconds
at YouTube {{DEFAULTSORT:Gimbal Lock Rotation in three dimensions Angle Gyroscopes Spaceflight concepts 3D computer graphics