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In technology, triangulation is finding a radio transmitter’s exact location by comparing it to three nearby connection nodes of various types to determine its distance and angle from each node. The data is then compiled to determine a precise location by overlapping the radio transmitter’s radial distance from each node’s findings.

It is worth noting that triangulation has a different meaning in psychology and data science. So, if you are looking for a psychological or data science definition, this is the wrong place for you.

Let’s jump into its technological definition and explore this concept deeper!

Triangulation: An Exact Definition

Triangulation can use one of many methods to determine the location of an object. You can even triangulate locations using images in some cases. Typically, when we refer to triangulation in the modern day, we’re referring to cell phones, GPSs, or 911 locators.

Key Points:

  • While triangulation has a few meanings, normally we are talking about cell phones, GPSs, and 911 locators.
  • This is also a skill to be used by a person while hiking and exploring the wild.
  • When it comes to your cell phone, triangulation is typically using towers to determine your location.

How Does Triangulation Work?

Triangulation measures the radial distance of an object, in this case, a radio transmitter, from a node. It chooses the three closest nodes to the object in question and overlaps the radial distances between the three nodes. Where those radials intersect lies the object.

When using cell phones or GPSs, you usually compare your location to the closest radio towers in your area. 911 locators use your cell phone’s radio signal or GPS to find you if you cannot locate yourself.

You can also triangulate a location using images. This triangulation method is often used in space tech, where faraway objects don’t emit radio signals that we can compare. In this case, the distance between will be measured using images and overlapping the radial distances between objects in the picture.

navigation map on a smartphone screen
GPS utilizes triangulation to find your exact location.


How Do You Triangulate a Location?

The answer to this question relies on whether you mean triangulate by hand or create a program to triangulate the location for you. Creating a program that triangulates a location is more technologically intensive than triangulating the location by hand, but doing it by hand is more mathematically intensive than developing a program to do it for you.

Learning to triangulate your location manually is a valuable skill, even if it has few practical applications. For example, one of the primary hobbies that relies somewhat on manual triangulation is hiking. However, when hiking, you may not be close enough to a cellphone tower for the GPS to triangulate your location. In these cases, you’ll need to triangulate your location to manually figure out where you are.

Step 1: Identify Landmarks

Triangulation relies on learning the distance of landmark features of your area. By identifying the landmark features on your map, you can create nodes that determine where you’re located by overlapping their radial distances.

You’ll want to choose things you can see easily on your map, like ponds and rock formations. Unfortunately, there are probably too many trees that aren’t shown on the map to use trees as feasible landmarks. However, some trees may be prominent enough to show up on maps. It depends entirely upon where you sourced your map and how famous the tree is.

Remember that you can use just about any significant landmark to triangulate a location. So, for example, you can triangulate your location in a city if you want to (without using your phone, of course.) In these locations, you’ll typically choose buildings or other prominent artificial landmarks to triangulate with.

folded cartography map of a street with location pin
Anytime you drop a pin of your location, you share the GPS coordinates of that spot.

©Azat Valeev/Shutterstock.com

Step 2: Orient Your Map Correctly

Next, you’ll need to ensure your map is facing the correct direction to triangulate your location. Now, you’ll need to adjust your map to account for magnetic declination, the angle between the magnetic North of the Earth’s geomagnetic field and the true North.

Some compasses can be adjusted to read the magnetic declination of your location. If you have an adjustable compass, adjust it and use it to find the magnetic declination of your location. You can do this by aligning the North-South gridlines of the map with your compass. Once you do, the compass will point North.

If your compass isn’t adjustable, you can still use it to find your magnetic declination. You do everything the same, except after you’ve aligned the North and South gridlines of the map with the compass, you’ll want to subtract the degree of magnetic variation shown on the compass from that of the map.

Step 3: Get Your Bearings on Nearby Landmarks

Getting your bearings on nearby landmarks is crucial for triangulating your locations. For basic triangulation, you only need to know the direction you lie in from each landmark. Hold your compass in front of you and point the direction-of-travel arrow (located at the top of the rotating disk inside the compass) towards the landmark to find this out. This will show you what direction the landmarks lie in from you when calculating the radial distance from each landmark.

Step 4: Move Your Bearings to Your Map

Next, you’ll need to transfer the bearings you’ve discovered to your map. First, align the long edge of the compass on top of the landmark on the map. Then using a straight edge, make a line on the map from the landmark toward your location. Repeat this with all three landmarks, and when you find the spot where all three lines intersect, you’ve found your location.

Triangulating Using Just One Landmark

It’s also possible that you’ll run into a situation where you don’t have many landmarks to triangulate your location. Luckily, you can do this process with just one landmark if you work at it. Here’s how you can triangulate a location based on just one landmark location.

To triangulate with just one landmark, it needs to be a relatively prominent and long landmark like a river or a road. But to triangulate your location using such a significant landmark, you simply repeat steps 1–3 with different points on your landmark to find your approximate location.

What are the Applications of Triangulation?

It’s hard to avoid triangulation in the modern day because it’s used for so many things. The most apparent application of triangulation is in GPS work. Cellphones and car GPS units use triangulation to find your location relative to the radio towers in your area.

911 operators also use triangulation to locate people who cannot send out their own location when calling for help, whether because they don’t know it or are otherwise unable to speak. 911 operators use your phone’s radio signal to triangulate your location to find and help you.

Examples of Triangulation in Real Life

Google Maps (and Equivalent Programs or Hardware)

Programs like Google Maps allow users to find their location and the location of various landmarks using their phone’s radio signal. The signal is radially located compared to local radio towers, and the phone’s exact location is found using triangulation.

Space Tech

While the term “space tech” is a pretty broad stroke, triangulation is often used in space advances. For example, locations of celestial bodies are found and located within the universe using visual triangulation. Triangulation is also used to send manufactured objects — like rovers and space probes — to space. Other advanced mathematics are used to determine the gravitational fields of other celestial bodies to launch objects off the orbits of other planets and space junk.

Final Thoughts

Triangulation is a handy tool. So, it’s fortunate that triangulating a location is relatively easy to do manually. In addition, programs that triangulate your location are commonly used and are typically free nowadays. So, you don’t have to worry about manually triangulating your location when you’re in civilization. But, if you’re a fan of the great outdoors, manually learning triangulation could be a literal lifesaver!

Up Next:

What is Triangulation and How Does It Work? What is It Used for? FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What is trilateration?

Trilateration is like triangulation but uses the Cosine rule to determine the location of the object in question. Triangulation uses the Sine rule.

How accurate is triangulation?

Triangulation is shown to have a deviation of about 0.5 meters from the actual location of the object, on average.

Why do you need three points for triangulation?

Using three points for triangulation is crucial to finding an accurate location. By comparing the radial distances of three locations, you get the best combination of location accuracy and low effort. You can use more nodes, resulting in a more accurate reading or fewer nodes resulting in a less accurate reading. Still, you’ll need at least two to find overlap, even if you only use one landmark for both nodes.

Where is triangulation used?

GPS companies, space tech companies, and 911 operators commonly use triangulation.

What is the triangulation method in surveying?

In surveying, triangulation refers to finding a location by comparing its radial distance to three landmarks.

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  • Technopedia Available here: https://www.techopedia.com/definition/14856/triangulation#:~:text=Triangulation%20is%20the%20process%20of,of%20the%20three%20radial%20distances.
  • Wikipedia Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetic_declination
  • Duke University Available here: https://people.duke.edu/~ng46/02-comp-cart/c6.htm
  • Science Direct Available here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1077314297905476
  • Sigma Pubs Available here: https://sigmapubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1547-5069.2001.00253.x
  • Wikipedia Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangulation_(surveying)
  • National Geographic Available here: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/triangulation-sized