The errors to which a gyrocompass is subject are speed error, latitude error, ballistic deflection error, ballistic damping error, quadrantal error, and gimballing error. Additional errors may be introduced by a malfunction or incorrect alignment with the centerline of the vessel.
Speed error is caused by the fact that a gyrocompass only moves directly east or west when it is stationary (on the rotating earth) or placed on a vessel moving exactly east or west. Any movement to the north or south will cause the compass to trace a path which is actually a function of the speed of advance and the amount of northerly or southerly heading. This causes the compass to tend to settle a bit off true north. This error is westerly if the vessel's course is northerly, and easterly if the course is southerly. Its magnitude depends on the vessel's speed, course, and latitude. This error can be corrected internally by means of a cosine cam mounted on the underside of the azimuth gear, which removes most of the error. Any remaining error is minor in amount and can be disregarded.
Tangent latitude error is a property only of gyros with mercury ballistics, and is easterly in north latitudes and westerly in south latitudes. This error is also corrected internally, by offsetting the lubber's line or with a small movable weight attached to the casing.
Ballistic deflection error occurs when there is a marked change in the north-south component of the speed. East-west accelerations have no effect. A change of course or speed also results in speed error in the opposite direction, and the two tend to cancel each other if the compass is properly designed. This aspect of design involves slightly offsetting the ballistics according to the operating latitude, upon which the correction is dependent. As latitude changes, the error becomes apparent, but can be minimized by adjusting the offset.
Ballistic damping error is a temporary oscillation introduced by changes in course or speed. During a change in course or speed, the mercury in the ballistic is subjected to centrifugal and acceleration/deceleration forces. This causes a torquing of the spin axis and subsequent error in the compass reading. Slow changes do not introduce enough error to be a problem, but rapid changes will. This error is counteracted by changing the position of the ballistics so that the true vertical axis is centered, thus not subject to error, but only when certain rates of turn or acceleration are exceeded.
Quadrantal error has two causes. The first occurs if the center of gravity of the gyro is not exactly centered in the phantom. This causes the gyro to tend to swing along its heavy axis as the vessel rolls in the sea. It is minimized by adding weight so that the mass is the same in all directions from the center. Without a long axis of weight, there is no tendency to swing in one particular direction. The second source of quadrantal error is more difficult to eliminate. As a vessel rolls in the sea, the apparent vertical axis is displaced, first to one side and then the other. The vertical axis of the gyro tends to align itself with the apparent vertical. On northerly or southerly courses, and on easterly or westerly courses, the compass precesses equally to both sides and the resulting error is zero. On intercardinal courses, the N-S and E-W precessions are additive, and a persistent error is introduced, which changes direction in different quadrants. This error is corrected by use of a second gyroscope called a floating ballistic, which stabilizes the mercury ballistic as the vessel rolls, eliminating the error. Another method is to use two gyros for the directive element, which tend to precess in opposite directions, neutralizing the error.
Gimballing error is caused by taking readings from the compass card when it is tilted from the horizontal plane. It applies to the compass itself and to all repeaters. To minimize this error, the outer ring of the gimbal of each repeater should be installed in alignment with the fore-and- aft line of the vessel. Of course, the lubber's line must be exactly centered as well.