How a Kalman filter works, in pictures

How a Kalman filter works, in pictures

Surprisingly few software engineers and scientists seem to know about it, and that makes me sad because it is such a general and powerful tool for combining information in the presence of uncertainty. At times its ability to extract accurate information seems almost magical— and if it sounds like I’m talking this up too much, then take a look at this previously posted video where I demonstrate a Kalman filter figuring out the orientation of a free-floating body by looking at its velocity. Totally neat!

You can use a Kalman filter in any place where you have uncertain information about some dynamic system, and you can make an educated guess about what the system is going to do next. Even if messy reality comes along and interferes with the clean motion you guessed about, the Kalman filter will often do a very good job of figuring out what actually happened. And it can take advantage of correlations between crazy phenomena that you maybe wouldn’t have thought to exploit!

Kalman filters are ideal for systems which are continuously changing. They have the advantage that they are light on memory (they don’t need to keep any history other than the previous state), and they are very fast, making them well suited for real time problems and embedded systems. The math for implementing the Kalman filter appears pretty scary and opaque in most places you find on Google.

That’s a bad state of affairs, because the Kalman filter is actually super simple and easy to understand if you look at it in the right way. Thus it makes a great article topic, and I will attempt to illuminate it with lots of clear, pretty pictures and colors. The prerequisites are simple; all you need is a basic understanding of probability and matrices.