RADAR—an acronym for RAdio Detection And Ranging— is the use of electromagnetic waves at sub-optical frequencies (i.e., less than about 10 12 Hz) to sense objects at a distance. Hundreds of different RADAR systems have been designed for various purposes, military and other. RADAR systems are essential to the navigation and tracking of craft at sea and in the air, weather prediction, and scientific research of many kinds.

Principles. In basic RADAR, radio waves are transmitted from an antenna. These outgoing waves eventually bounce off some distant object and return an echo to the sender, where they are received, amplified, and processed electronically to yield an image showing the object's location. The waves sent out may be either short oscillatory bursts (pulses) or continuous sinusoidal waves. If a RADAR transmits pulses it is termed a pulse RADAR, whereas if it transmits a continuous sinusoidal wave it is termed a continuous-wave RADAR.

On closer examination, the RADAR process is seen to be more complex. For example, reflection of an echo by the object one wishes to sense is anything but straightforward. Upon leaving a transmitting antenna, a radio wave propagates in a widening beam at the speed of light (> 186,000 miles per hour [3 × 10 8 m/sec]); if it encounters an obstacle (i.e., a medium whose characteristic impedance differs from that of air and vacuum [> 377 Ω), it splits into two parts. One part passes into the obstacle and is (generally) absorbed, and the other is reflected. Where the reflected wave goes depends on the shape of the obstacle. Roundish or irregular obstacles tend to scatter energy through a wide angle, while flat or facet-like surfaces tend to send it off in a single direction, just as a flat mirror reflects light. If any part of the outgoing wave is reflected at 180° (which is not guaranteed) it will return to the transmitter. This returned or backscattered signal is usually detected by the same antenna that sent the outgoing pulse; this antenna alternates rapidly between transmitting pulses and listening for echoes, thus building a realtime picture of the reflecting targets in range of its beam. The energy the echoes receive is a small fraction of that in the pulses transmitted, so the strength of the transmitted pulse and the sensitivity of the receiver determines a RADAR's range. By systematically sweeping the direction in which its antenna is pointed, a RADAR system can scan a much larger volume of space than its beam can interrogate at any one moment; this is why many RADAR antennas, on ships or atop air-traffic control towers, are seen to rotate while in operation.

Radio waves are not the only form of energy that can be used to derive echoes from distant targets. Sound waves may also be used. Indeed, because radio waves are rapidly absorbed in water, sonar (SOund Navigation and Ranging) is essential to underwater operations of all sorts, including sea-floor mapping and anti-submarine warfare.

Applications. Since World War II RADAR has been deployed in many forms and has found a wide application in scientific, commercial, and military operations. RADAR signals have been bounced off targets ranging in size from dust specks to other planets. RADAR is essential to rocketry and early-warning detection of missiles, air traffic control, navigation at sea, automatic control of weapons such as antiaircraft guns, aircraft detection and tracking, mapping of the ground from the air, weather prediction, intruder detection, and numerous other tasks. Few craft, military or civilian, put to sea or take to the air without carrying some form of RADAR.

In recent decades, development of the basic RADAR principle—send pulse, listen for echo—has proceeded along a number of interesting paths. By exploiting the Doppler effect, which causes frequency shifts in echoes reflected from moving objects, modern RADARs can tell not only where an object is but what direction it is moving in and how quickly. The Doppler effect also allows for the precision mapping of landscapes from moving aircraft through the synthetic-aperture technique. Synthetic-aperture systems exploit the fact that stationary objects being swept by a RADAR beam projected from a moving source have, depending on their location, slightly different absolute velocities with respect to that source. By detecting these velocity differences using the Doppler effect, synthetic aperture type RADAR greatly permits the generation of high-resolution ground maps from small, airborne RADARs.

In many modern RADAR systems the need for a mechanically moving antenna has been obviated by phased arrays. A phased array consists of a large number of small, computer-controlled antennas termed elements. These elements, of which there are usually thousands, are crowded together to form a flat surface. In transmit mode, the elements are all instructed to emit a RADAR pulse at approximately the same time; the thousands of outbound waves produced by the elements merge into a single powerful wave as they spread outward. By timing, or phasing, the elements in the array so that, for example, elements along the left-hand edge of the array fire first while those farther to the right fire progressively later, the composite wave formed by the merging of the elements' lesser outputs can be steered in any desired direction within a wide cone (in this example, to the right). Beam steering can be accomplished by such a system millions of times more rapidly than would be possible with mechanical methods. Phased-array systems are used for a number of applications; including the 71.5-foot (21.8-m) tall AN/FPS-115 PAVE PAWS Early Warning RADAR Array Antennas, which provide early warning of ballistic-missile attack; shipboard systems such as the AN/SPY-1D, which is about 15 feet (3 m) across and is mounted flush with the upper hull of some warships; the Hughes AN/TPQ-37 Firefinder, a trailer-mounted system designed for tracking incoming artillery and missiles and calculating their point of origin; and many other real-world systems.

RADAR is a powerful weapon of war, but has its weaknesses. For example, numerous missiles have been developed to home in on the radio pulses emitted by RADARs, making it very dangerous to turn on a RADAR in a modern battlefield situation. Further, jamming and spoofing ("electronic warfare") have evolved rapidly alongside RADAR itself. For example, an aircraft that finds itself interrogated by a RADAR pulse can emit blasts of noise or false echoes, or request that a drone or other unit emit them, in order to confuse enemy RADAR. Finally, aircraft have been built that are "low observable," that is, which scatter very little energy back toward any RADAR that illuminates them. Low-observable or "stealth" aircraft are built of radio-absorbent materials and shaped to present little or no surface area perpendicular to RADAR pulses approaching from most angles (except directly above and directly below, the two least likely places for an enemy RADAR to be at any given moment). What RADAR they do reflect is deflected at low angles rather than returned to the RADAR transmitter. The U.S. B-2 bomber and F-117A and F-22 fighters are working examples of low-observable aircraft.



Edde, Byron. RADAR: Principles, Technology, Applications. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: PTR Hall, 1993.

Skolnik, Merrill I. Introduction to RADAR Systems. New York: McGraw Hills, 2001.


Stealth Technology
RADAR, Synthetic Aperture

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