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Estimation theory is a branch of statistics that deals with estimating the values of parameters based on measured empirical data that has a random component. The parameters describe an underlying physical setting in such a way that their value affects the distribution of the measured data. An estimator attempts to approximate the unknown parameters using the measurements.

For example, it is desired to estimate the proportion of a population of voters who will vote for a particular candidate. That proportion is the parameter sought; the estimate is based on a small random sample of voters.

Or, for example, in radar our aim is to find the range of objects (airplanes, boats, etc.) by analyzing the two-way transit timing of received echoes of transmitted pulses. Since the reflected pulses are unavoidably embedded in electrical noise, their measured values are randomly distributed, so that the transit time must be estimated.

In estimation theory, two approaches are generally considered. [1]

  • The probabilistic approach (described in this article) assumes that the measured data is random with probability distribution dependent on the parameters of interest
  • The set-membership approach assumes that the measured data vector belongs to a set which depends on the parameter vector.

For example, in electrical communication theory, the measurements which contain information regarding the parameters of interest are often associated with a noisy signal.



To build a model, several statistical "ingredients" need to be known. These are needed to ensure the estimator has some mathematical tractability.

The first is a set of statistical samples taken from a random vector (RV) of size N. Put into a vector,


Secondly, there are the corresponding M parameters


which need to be established with their continuous probability density function (pdf) or its discrete counterpart, the probability mass function (pmf)


It is also possible for the parameters themselves to have a probability distribution (e.g., Bayesian statistics). It is then necessary to define the Bayesian probability


After the model is formed, the goal is to estimate the parameters, commonly denoted  , where the "hat" indicates the estimate.

One common estimator is the minimum mean squared error estimator, which utilizes the error between the estimated parameters and the actual value of the parameters


as the basis for optimality. This error term is then squared and minimized for the MMSE estimator.


Commonly used estimators and estimation methods, and topics related to them:


Unknown constant in additive white Gaussian noiseEdit

Consider a received discrete signal,  , of   independent samples that consists of an unknown constant   with additive white Gaussian noise (AWGN)   with known variance   (i.e.,  ). Since the variance is known then the only unknown parameter is  .

The model for the signal is then


Two possible (of many) estimators for the parameter   are:

  •   which is the sample mean

Both of these estimators have a mean of  , which can be shown through taking the expected value of each estimator




At this point, these two estimators would appear to perform the same. However, the difference between them becomes apparent when comparing the variances.




It would seem that the sample mean is a better estimator since its variance is lower for every N > 1.

Maximum likelihoodEdit

Continuing the example using the maximum likelihood estimator, the probability density function (pdf) of the noise for one sample   is


and the probability of   becomes (  can be thought of a  )


By independence, the probability of   becomes


Taking the natural logarithm of the pdf


and the maximum likelihood estimator is


Taking the first derivative of the log-likelihood function


and setting it to zero


This results in the maximum likelihood estimator


which is simply the sample mean. From this example, it was found that the sample mean is the maximum likelihood estimator for   samples of a fixed, unknown parameter corrupted by AWGN.

Cramér–Rao lower boundEdit

To find the Cramér–Rao lower bound (CRLB) of the sample mean estimator, it is first necessary to find the Fisher information number


and copying from above


Taking the second derivative


and finding the negative expected value is trivial since it is now a deterministic constant  

Finally, putting the Fisher information into


results in


Comparing this to the variance of the sample mean (determined previously) shows that the sample mean is equal to the Cramér–Rao lower bound for all values of   and  . In other words, the sample mean is the (necessarily unique) efficient estimator, and thus also the minimum variance unbiased estimator (MVUE), in addition to being the maximum likelihood estimator.

Maximum of a uniform distributionEdit

One of the simplest non-trivial examples of estimation is the estimation of the maximum of a uniform distribution. It is used as a hands-on classroom exercise and to illustrate basic principles of estimation theory. Further, in the case of estimation based on a single sample, it demonstrates philosophical issues and possible misunderstandings in the use of maximum likelihood estimators and likelihood functions.

Given a discrete uniform distribution   with unknown maximum, the UMVU estimator for the maximum is given by


where m is the sample maximum and k is the sample size, sampling without replacement.[2][3] This problem is commonly known as the German tank problem, due to application of maximum estimation to estimates of German tank production during World War II.

The formula may be understood intuitively as;

"The sample maximum plus the average gap between observations in the sample",

the gap being added to compensate for the negative bias of the sample maximum as an estimator for the population maximum.[note 1]

This has a variance of[2]


so a standard deviation of approximately  , the (population) average size of a gap between samples; compare   above. This can be seen as a very simple case of maximum spacing estimation.

The sample maximum is the maximum likelihood estimator for the population maximum, but, as discussed above, it is biased.


Numerous fields require the use of estimation theory. Some of these fields include (but are by no means limited to):

Measured data are likely to be subject to noise or uncertainty and it is through statistical probability that optimal solutions are sought to extract as much information from the data as possible.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The sample maximum is never more than the population maximum, but can be less, hence it is a biased estimator: it will tend to underestimate the population maximum.


  1. ^ Walter, E.; Pronzato, L. (1997). Identification of Parametric Models from Experimental Data. London, UK: Springer-Verlag. 
  2. ^ a b Johnson, Roger (1994), "Estimating the Size of a Population", Teaching Statistics, 16 (2 (Summer)): 50, doi:10.1111/j.1467-9639.1994.tb00688.x  External link in |journal= (help)
  3. ^ Johnson, Roger (2006), "Estimating the Size of a Population", Getting the Best from Teaching Statistics, archived from the original (PDF) on November 20, 2008