The Journey from Military Radar to Cost-effective, All-in-One Civil Weather and Aircraft Control Systems

Oct. 25, 2016

MPARblog.pngThrough innovation, industries transform before our eyes, driven by new technology introductions.  It seems that few areas in our lives escape the wave of technology’s wand, from consumable camera “pills” for human vital sign diagnosis to close-up beauty shots of the planet Jupiter. Today’s fascinating advancements bring us pause, but often with a technology’s introduction, there is more intrigue and innovation ahead from the implications beyond its current target application.  What technology path might be opened and new ideas generated by a new design?

Examples of unforeseen applications abound. When the U.S. Navy first deployed the GPS-based Satellite Navigation Program in the 1960s, how many people imagined that this same capability would one day enable us to buy microchips at the local pet store to track our pets?  The idea or concept comes first, but whether it’s tracking Fido or implementing complex military-grade Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar technology, there are market and technical conditions that must be met to ensure a stable, scalable deployment.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are well on the way in this journey of transforming weather and air traffic control management by using the existing, but complex AESA radar system technology originally designed for military applications. As with all efforts of this magnitude, it takes an ecosystem of technological collaboration to bring it the fore. In this case, NOAA’s goal to generate more precise weather information and earlier forecasts will directly reduce danger to communities via early notification of severe weather.

The FAA, responsible for tens of thousands of aircraft flights every day in the U.S., is chartered to ensure that passengers are safe.  Current air traffic is managed by decentralized systems and sometimes managed by different agencies, and the existing radar infrastructure is antiquated. The FAA sees the opportunity to achieve higher precision air traffic control, and consolidate onto a single network of radar systems to improve traffic management.

According to NOAA, the AESA deployment will combine 350 single-function aircraft tracking radars and 200 weather radars into approximately 365 multi-functional radars, saving billions of dollars, but also enabling the federal agencies that operate these networks with unprecedented data access from all 365 radars for use by the National Weather Service.  This project is clearly well worth the effort and the timing is right, as the older systems require replacement.

Civil authorities face the same go-to-market challenges as their commercial counterparts; complex technology implementation must be cost-effective and scalable to ensure that the right technology is in place while it is most impactful. This is where the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory and MACOM’s collaboration became part of the project’s ecosystem by developing Multifunction Phased Array Radar (MPAR) active antenna components, which combine highly sophisticated RF technology with low cost, commercial manufacturing processes. MPAR’s precision temporal and spatial radar tracking is a good match for NOAA and FAA’s respective missions.

The first generation of MPAR systems sponsored by the FAA and NOAA leverage an array of MACOM-manufactured SPAR Tiles that do the foundational transmission and receiving of pulsed radar energy to facilitate tracking of aircraft or storm activity. Unlike previous radar systems where the dish needed to mechanically rotate to scan areas, the SPAR tiles perform this scanning electronically leveraging a stationary flat panel array comprised of hundreds to thousands of transmit/receive elements. This is a remarkable advancement in precision and performance.

Manufactured in high volumes using commercial best practices, SPAR Tiles can drive speedy production of these complex active antenna systems, getting them where they need to be and at a cost that the civil administration can both afford and bring to scale.  

And so the journey begins. In August 2016, the first prototype of a combined weather and traffic control system was tested in Norman, Oklahoma, at the National Severe Storms Labs (NSSL). With advanced technology, low-cost scalability, collaboration, and innovative manufacturing processes, MACOM and its partners are paving the way to bring this technology to market.


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