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An accelerometer is a device that measures proper acceleration; proper acceleration is not the same as coordinate acceleration . For example, an accelerometer at rest on the surface of the Earth will measure an acceleration due to Earth's gravity, straight upwards of g ≈ 9.81 m/s2. By contrast, accelerometers in free fall will measure zero.

An accelerometer is a device that measures proper acceleration; proper acceleration is not the same as coordinate acceleration (rate of change of velocity). For example, an accelerometer at rest on the surface of the Earth will measure an acceleration due to Earth's gravity, straight upwards (by definition) of g ≈ 9.81 m/s. By contrast, accelerometers in free fall (falling toward the center of the Earth at a rate of about 9.81 m/s) will measure zero.

Accelerometers have multiple applications in industry and science. Highly sensitive accelerometers are components of inertial navigation systems for aircraft and missiles. Accelerometers are used to detect and monitor vibration in rotating machinery. Accelerometers are used in tablet computers and digital cameras so that images on screens are always displayed upright. Accelerometers are used in drones for flight stabilisation. Coordinated accelerometers can be used to measure differences in proper acceleration, particularly gravity, over their separation in space; i.e., gradient of the gravitational field. This gravity gradiometry is useful because absolute gravity is a weak effect and depends on local density of the Earth which is quite variable.

Single- and multi-axis models of accelerometer are available to detect magnitude and direction of the proper acceleration, as a vector quantity, and can be used to sense orientation (because direction of weight changes), coordinate acceleration, vibration, shock, and falling in a resistive medium (a case where the proper acceleration changes, since it starts at zero, then increases). Micromachined accelerometers are increasingly present in portable electronic devices and video game controllers, to detect the position of the device or provide for game input.