altimeter (ăltĭmˈĭtər, ălˈtĭmēˌtər) [key], device for measuring altitude. The most common type is an aneroid barometer calibrated to show the drop in atmospheric pressure in terms of linear elevation as an airplane, balloon, or mountain climber rises. It shows height above sea level, but not above such land features as hills, mountains, and valleys. The radio altimeter, or terrain-clearance indicator, is an absolute altimeter; it indicates the actual altitude over water or over terrain, however uneven. It operates by first sending either continuous or pulse radio signals from a transmitter in an aircraft to the earth's surface. A receiver in the aircraft then picks up the reflection of the signals from the surface. The time it takes for the signals to travel to the earth and back is converted automatically into absolute altitude that can then be read from a calibrated indicator. The radio altimeter is used in the automatic landing systems of aerospace vehicles; systems developed from radio altimeters can automatically control military aircraft flying at high speeds and low altitudes.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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