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How Does Radar Work?

Anybody reading this has likely heard of the term radar before, but how does this technology work? Most people have been exposed to radar technology in movies where it finds use in aircraft and submarines, but radar is also used in a wide variety of other applications. In this blog, we will discuss the function and applications of radar and radio-detection technology.

Radar technology was first examined in the late 1800s when physicist Heinrich Hertz surveyed the properties of electromagnetic waves. In his study, he noticed that certain wavelengths could be readily reflected off objects and found multiple applications of radar technologies. From then until WWII, many scientists and military engineers were looking for ways to implement radar technology on aircraft to help them identify enemy aeronautical vessels. In 1934, the Army Signal Corps used continuous radio waves to detect short-range targets but postulated that the same technology could be used over longer distances.

Modern radar involves a system that can send and interpret electromagnetic waves and use this information to provide the user with the accurate location of various targets. When used on aircraft, ground stations, or nautical vessels, the system sends electromagnetic energy in different directions, which bounces off whatever objects it meets and provides a feedback signal that can be interpreted by the system. The device that is capable of sending an electromagnetic signal is the transmitter. This device typically produces waves found in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum, which are defined as waves having frequencies between 400 Mhz to 40 Ghz. Once the wave strikes a target, it scatters in several directions, including that of the radar system. The antenna initially receives this returned signal, which is then transmitted to the receiver, where it is processed.

Radar technology can provide the user with several important metrics about the target. First, it determines distance by calculating the time it takes for a wave to travel from the transmitter back to the antenna. It can also establish an object's direction by calculating the wave's maximum amplitude in relation to the antenna. Finally, radar uses a principle called the doppler effect to determine the position of a moving object by calculating the quotient of the receiver velocity over the source velocity.

While the described operating principle explains how radar technology works in general, there are various types of radar that are thus explained:

  • Bistatic Radar: Bistatic radar is used mostly in long-range applications, such as surface-to-air or air-to-air operations. It uses a physically separated transmitter and receiver placed at a distance similar to the target's estimated location. Such systems are beneficial in covert operations because the receiver generally remains undetectable by the target.
  • Doppler Radar: Used most often in meteorologic applications, doppler radar operates based on the previously mentioned doppler effect. Because the various forms of precipitation causes a different Doppler shift, weather stations can use the received information to track the location and type of storm ensuing.
  • Mapping Radar: Mapping or imaging radar is used to create renderings of large landscapes by representing each location of radar backscatter as a pixel. This technology is used by geographical and astronomical organizations to map large surface areas.
  • Navigational Radars: These radars transmit small wavelengths to pick up information about nearby objects. Since this radar type is more compact than others and provides accurate navigational data, it is commonly used on military and nonmilitary ships and aircraft.

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About Author - Charles Howard

Charles Howard is a passionate aviation enthusiast with over 15 years of experience in the industry. Holding a degree in Aerospace Engineering, Charles has worked with some of the top aerospace companies and has been involved in various groundbreaking projects that have shaped modern aviation.

Currently Charles is leading the content marketing team at NSN Sphere. Charles's passion for writing is matched only by his commitment to delivering value to his readers. His blogs are known for their clarity, creativity, and ability to distill complex topics into easily digestible and enjoyable reads.


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