Twitter Facebook Google RSS
Air Power 

DARPA Program Aims to Reduce Cost of Electronic Antenna Systems 


By Christina Munnell 

Electronic antenna systems, which are used on aircraft and other military platforms for radar, communications and electronic warfare, are notoriously costly to both develop, maintain and upgrade.

A Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program is seeking to sharply reduce the cost and years it takes to develop electronically scanned array antennas (ESA).

“The DoD customer base has been requesting ESAs for years, but it has not previously been affordable,” said Lee Paulsen, a principal electrical engineer at Rockwell Collins, which recently received a $10 million DARPA award to enhance the antenna designs with more versatile, digital versions.

DARPA’s description of the Arrays at Commercial Timescales (ACT) program, said: “It is imperative to define a path toward shorter design cycles and in-field updates and push past the traditional barriers that lead to 10-year array development cycles, 20- to 30-year static life cycles and costly service life extension programs.”

Rockwell Collins will develop a common building block component that makes these antenna systems reconfigurable and readily upgradeable, driving down the cost of procurement by at least 80 percent, according to Paulsen.

Roy Olsson, program manager for the microsystems technology office at DARPA, said, “The goal is to realize as much commonality as possible without degrading performance or significantly increasing power consumption.”

Traditional antenna systems were mechanically steered and were designed to be application-specific. This made it difficult to upgrade the technology and use it across various platforms, Olsson explained. The ACT program, which was established in February of 2013, wants to make ESAs more adaptable by creating a standard design that can be used across multiple platforms. 

Along with increased adaptability, an improved ESA system could help speed up the beam-forming process, allowing pilots to detect radar threats more quickly and make them less vulnerable to electronic warfare. Because mechanically steered systems must be physically guided, it often takes a fair amount of time to orient and aim the antennas in different directions, said Paulsen.

“In an ESA, you simply set the control signals and, regardless of where the antenna was previously pointed, the beam will form in the new direction. [This] allows us to move the antenna gain pattern around in space much faster than could ever be done with motors,” he said.

Sharp, reliable signaling is important for effective communication and information sharing among different services as well. Typical radio frequency systems, like cellular phone systems, separate different RF signals based on time and frequency, allowing for many simultaneous users along the spectrum, Olsson explained. But ESAs add an important third dimension in distinguishing RF signals: space.

“With an increasingly crowded RF spectrum contested by multiple jamming sources, being able to separate signals in space and to choose the source of RF energy to be received is important,” Olsson said.

When ESAs transmit these RF signals, they allow the radiation to be targeted in one specific direction and to be pointed at an intended recipient, Olsson said. This reduces the required transmit power compared to a traditional antenna, which radiates in all directions.

An ESA’s ability to target its beams, and electronically steer both the received and the transmitted RF beams, will make military communications much more difficult to jam and to intercept, Olsson added.

While the antennas can quickly form beams and move them around in space, they can also form a “null” — a direction in space where the array is not receiving any energy. This reduces the chance of radar interference, Paulsen explained. “You can imagine how that would come in handy when trying to counter an adversary that is blasting RF energy at you to try and jam your radar.” 

Although ESAs replaced mechanically steered antennas in the most critical defense applications long ago, the high cost and duration of their development continues to prevent their widespread adoption for military forces, Olsson said.

The ACT program will attempt to cut these costs by modernizing older systems and compressing the time it takes to design new ones, Olsson explained.

Analog components are more difficult to transition to advanced technologies because they are generally hand-designed and obsolete. But recent improvements in the type of data converters used to exchange information between analog and digital domains can modify these old systems to keep communication technology up to date for the services, Olsson said.

Rockwell Collins will use DARPA’s $10 million contract to demonstrate enhanced ESA capabilities in about three years, according to Paulsen. The company intends to sell the resulting technology to both commercial and defense customers.
Submit Your Reader's Comment Below
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
Please enter the text displayed in the image.
The picture contains 6 characters.
*Legal Notice

NDIA is not responsible for screening, policing, editing, or monitoring your or another user's postings and encourages all of its users to use reasonable discretion and caution in evaluating or reviewing any posting. Moreover, and except as provided below with respect to NDIA's right and ability to delete or remove a posting (or any part thereof), NDIA does not endorse, oppose, or edit any opinion or information provided by you or another user and does not make any representation with respect to, nor does it endorse the accuracy, completeness, timeliness, or reliability of any advice, opinion, statement, or other material displayed, uploaded, or distributed by you or any other user. Nevertheless, NDIA reserves the right to delete or take other action with respect to postings (or parts thereof) that NDIA believes in good faith violate this Legal Notice and/or are potentially harmful or unlawful. If you violate this Legal Notice, NDIA may, in its sole discretion, delete the unacceptable content from your posting, remove or delete the posting in its entirety, issue you a warning, and/or terminate your use of the NDIA site. Moreover, it is a policy of NDIA to take appropriate actions under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and other applicable intellectual property laws. If you become aware of postings that violate these rules regarding acceptable behavior or content, you may contact NDIA at 703.522.1820.

  Bookmark and Share