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I have a problem whereby I have to estimate the absolute error of a value calculated using values read from sensors. The equation used to calculate the value is $T_{xy} = R \tan \theta$.

The sensor that provides the $R$ value has a fixed absolute error value $\epsilon_{R}=\pm 5$ m. However, the sensor that provides $\theta$ values only provides a standard deviation value, $\sigma_{\theta}$. The first thing that I need to do is use this to estimate $\epsilon_{\theta}$, the absolute error in $\theta$.

My logic for this estimate is to use $\epsilon_{\theta} = 3\sigma_{\theta}$, as if the value of $\theta$ is normally distributed $3\sigma_{\theta}$ will cover 99% of the probably values. I'm not sure if this is a good estimate to use, I'd welcome suggestions on this.

Now that I have my values $\epsilon_{R}$ and $\epsilon_{\theta}$ I need to estimate $\epsilon_{T_{xy}}$. To do this I think I need to use the formula $\epsilon_{T_{xy}}=T_{xy}(\frac{\epsilon_{R}}{R} + \frac{\epsilon_{\tan\theta}}{\tan\theta})$. Is this correct?

To calculate the above formula I need to define $\epsilon_{\tan\theta}$. I have defined this as $\epsilon_{\tan\theta} = |\sec^{2}\theta|\epsilon_{\theta}$. I am unsure whether this is correct.

It would be great if somebody could either validate my approach, or point out any errors, as I'm currently getting error estimates that make my device unusable. The dominant component of the estimate seems to be the error associated with the angle $\theta$.

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What you need is to figure out the distribution of $T_{xy}$ given distributions for $R$ and $\tan \theta$. I'll assume that $R$ and $\theta$ are Gaussian variables with standard deviations given by the stated errors or maybe half of the stated errors (you would have to try to puzzle it out from whatever product literature you have). Note that this is already demonstrably incorrect, since $\theta$ has a finite range and a Gaussian variable must have an infinite range.

There are at least three ways to go from there:

(1) Approximate $R \tan \theta$ as linear in $R$ and $\theta$. This is inaccurate because you're ignoring higher-order terms, and it probably becomes more inaccurate as $\theta$ is farther from 0. However, it does make the problem much simpler, and it may be the only way to get an exact formula. A linear combination of Gaussian variables is again Gaussian. (Even if you don't assume that $R$ and $\theta$ are Gaussian, assuming linearity is still a big simplification.) The mean of a linear combination of Gaussian variables is a linear combination of the means and the variance is a linear combination of the variances.

(2) Try harder to get an exact formula. Use the so-called change of variables method. That isn't guaranteed to work.

(3) Use a Monte Carlo method to approximate the distribution of $R \tan \theta$ with a histogram.

My advice is to try the Monte Carlo method first, in order to get a feeling for the problem, and then the linearization method. I can help you work out the formulas for the linearization if you want. If the linearization method is too inaccurate, consider using the Monte Carlo method -- does it matter how long it takes to compute the error estimate? If not, then generating a million numbers via Monte Carlo won't hold you back.

EDIT: Here's a derivation of a linearized approximation and Monte Carlo approximation for comparison. In summary, mean and standard deviation of the linearized Gaussian approximation are:

$$\mu_{T_{x,y}}=R_{0}\,\tan \theta_{0}$$

$$\sigma_{T_{x,y}}=\sqrt{\tan ^2\theta_{0}\,\sigma_{R}^2+R_{0}^2\, \tan ^4\theta_{0}\,\sigma_{\theta}^2+2\,R_{0}^2\,\tan ^2 \theta_{0}\,\sigma_{\theta}^2+R_{0}^2\,\sigma_{\theta}^2}$$

Maxima session:

(%i2) T[x,y]:R*tan(theta)
(%i3) foo:taylor(T[x,y],[R,theta],[R_0,theta_0],[1,1])
(%o3)/T/ tan(theta_0) R_0 + (tan(theta_0) (R - R_0)
                                 2
                           + (tan (theta_0) + 1) R_0 (theta - theta_0)) + . . .
(%i4) foo:subst([R_0 = R[0],theta_0 = theta[0]],expand(foo))
                            2                                         2
(%o4) tan(theta ) R + R  tan (theta ) theta + R  theta - theta  R  tan (theta )
               0       0           0           0              0  0           0
                                                                    - theta  R
                                                                           0  0
(%i5) A:coeff(foo,R)
(%o5)                             tan(theta )
                                           0
(%i6) B:coeff(foo,theta)
                                   2
(%o6)                        R  tan (theta ) + R
                              0           0     0
(%i7) C:expand(-B*theta-A*R+foo)
                                    2
(%o7)                - theta  R  tan (theta ) - theta  R
                            0  0           0         0  0
(%i8) mu[T[x,y]]:expand(C+B*theta[0]+A*R[0])
(%o8)                           R  tan(theta )
                                 0          0
(%i9) sigma[T[x,y]]:sqrt(expand(B^2*sigma[theta]^2+A^2*sigma[R]^2))
              2              2    2    4              2
(%o9) sqrt(tan (theta ) sigma  + R  tan (theta ) sigma
                     0       R    0           0       theta
                                     2    2              2        2      2
                                + 2 R  tan (theta ) sigma      + R  sigma     )
                                     0           0       theta    0      theta
(%i10) [R[0],sigma[R],theta[0],sigma[theta]]:[17.29,0.25,0.9,0.01]
(%i11) ev([A,B,C])
(%o11)    [1.260158217550339, 44.7464980980593, - 40.27184828825338]
(%i12) load(distrib)
(%i13) load(descriptive)
(%i14) R_sample:random_normal(R[0],sigma[R],10000)
(%i15) theta_sample:random_normal(theta[0],sigma[theta],10000)
(%i16) T_xy_sample:R_sample*tan(theta_sample)
(%i17) histogram(T_xy_sample,nclasses = 20)
(%i18) [mean(T_xy_sample),ev(mu[T[x,y]])]
(%o18)              [21.79822439822625, 21.78813558144536]
(%i19) [std(T_xy_sample),ev(sigma[T[x,y]])]
(%o19)             [0.5516597186615362, 0.5472429351144614]
(%i20) tex('(mu[T[x,y]]) = mu[T[x,y]])
$$\mu_{T_{x,y}}=R_{0}\,\tan \vartheta_{0}$$
(%o20)                               false
(%i21) tex('(sigma[T[x,y]]) = sigma[T[x,y]])
$$\sigma_{T_{x,y}}=\sqrt{\tan ^2\vartheta_{0}\,\sigma_{R}^2+R_{0}^2\,
     \tan ^4\vartheta_{0}\,\sigma_{\vartheta}^2+2\,R_{0}^2\,\tan ^2
     \vartheta_{0}\,\sigma_{\vartheta}^2+R_{0}^2\,\sigma_{\vartheta}^2}$$

Maxima input script:

T[x, y] : R*tan(theta) $
    foo : taylor (T[x, y], [R, theta], [R_0, theta_0], [1, 1]);
    foo : subst ([R_0 = R[0], theta_0 = theta[0]], expand (foo));
    A : coeff (foo, R);
    B : coeff (foo, theta);
    C : expand (foo - A*R - B*theta);
    mu[T[x, y]] : expand (A*R[0] + B*theta[0] + C);
    sigma[T[x, y]] : sqrt (expand (A^2*sigma[R]^2 + B^2*sigma[theta]^2));
    [R[0], sigma[R], theta[0], sigma[theta]] : [17.29, 0.25, 0.9, 0.01] $
ev ([A, B, C]);
load(distrib) $
    load(descriptive) $
R_sample : random_normal (R[0], sigma[R], 10000) $
    theta_sample : random_normal (theta[0], sigma[theta], 10000) $
T_xy_sample : R_sample * tan(theta_sample) $
    histogram (T_xy_sample, nclasses = 20) $
[mean(T_xy_sample), ev (mu[T[x,y]])];
[std(T_xy_sample), ev (sigma[T[x,y]])];
tex ('(mu[T[x, y]]) = mu[T[x, y]]);
tex ('(sigma[T[x, y]]) = sigma[T[x, y]]);
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