News | Jun 18, 2019

Navigate by the stars? The US Air Force has a smartphone accessory for that

We can't reach the stars, but they can guide us to success

DAYTON, Ohio – Who needs GPS when you can navigate using the stars and your smartphone?

On Tuesday, the Air Force Research Laboratory was assigned U.S. Patent 10,323,939. Invented by Eric Vinande, an electronics engineer at the lab’s Sensors Directorate, the smartphone sextant is officially titled “Navigation Apparatus,” and unlike traditional sextants, doesn’t need to be pointed at the horizon.

Smartphone cameras are wide angle, which means they can’t focus on faint stars, making them unsuitable for sextant aiming. But they do contain a magnetic compass and gyroscope. So, the Air Force invention works by clamping a small telescope to your smartphone which is pointed at the heavens.

“Traditional celestial navigation requires measuring the elevation angle of a celestial object such as a star, planet, sun, moon, and the like or a combination thereof, above the horizon. An accurate time estimate to within a few seconds is required along with a rough estimate of position, and tabulated positions of celestial objects,” according to the Air Force patent.

Illustration from U.S. Patent 10,323,939, which was issued to the Air Force Research Laboratory on June 18, 2019.


“Some smartphone applications can provide celestial navigation readings by sighting to celestial objects through an aperture of the smartphone with an elevation angle reading taken from an internal tilt sensor, a time reading from an internal clock, along with locally or remotely stored tabulated positions of the celestial objects. Without needing to view the horizon, position updates are possible as long as a celestial object is detectable visually,” the patent states.

Once the altitudes of several stars, or the moon, and sun are determined, the smartphone navigation app can map your position.

But why not use the GPS?

The Air Force Research Laboratory has tasked teams of scientists with creating devices and techniques that warfighters could use in GPS-degraded or GPS-denied environments.

One of those projects resulted in six invention disclosures, which can be processed into patents, and research papers including “LeapFrogging: A Technique for Accurate Long‐Distance Ground Navigation and Positioning Without GPS.

With the smartphone sextant patent issued, entrepreneurs or businesses can license it, giving them the right to make, use, or sell the technology commercially.

In addition to market protections, an Air Force patent license agreement may give licensees access to technical support from the inventor or related data.

TechLink, a national partnership intermediary for technology transfer, helps businesses evaluate Department of Defense inventions for commercial potential and guides them through the patent licensing process; services provided at no charge.

“Smartphone accessories and apps are very popular and can have large customer bases,” said Austin Leach, TechLink’s associate director. “We’re excited to help this invention find someone who can bring it to market.”

Businesses interested in evaluating and licensing the technology can contact Austin Leach at or 406-994-7707.