INTELLIGENCE AND SURVEILLANCE
Digital Radar Tech to Enable Distributed Sensing
Sandia National Laboratories photo
SEVERNA PARK, Maryland — A new digital radar architecture in development at Sandia National Laboratories is intended to shift the paradigm for military sensing.
The new technology replaces analog signal processing hardware with digitally based signal processing firmware and software that can be downloaded for different missions to a small toolbox-sized piece of equipment that meshes with existing and future sensors.
It takes radars “from a few exquisite sensors to a distributed [electronic warfare], distributed communications, distributed intelligence paradigm,” said Jacques Loui, technical lead for Sandia’s multi-mission radar frequency architecture.
The architecture allows a single sensor to perform multiple tasks “like a Swiss Army knife,” diminishing space, weight and power requirements, Loui said. Hypothetically, the sensors could be placed in a variety of unmanned aircraft, manned aircraft and even weapons to form a distributed sensing network of platforms that can communicate and collaborate.
The digital architecture’s flexibility could allow a sensor to tackle an EW mission on one sortie, then perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance on the next, he said.
It has the potential to help realize the military’s concept of replacing expensive, mission-dedicated aircraft like the EA-18G Growler with large numbers of inexpensive drones and smart weapons, he said.
The rapidly upgradeable, reconfigurable architecture employs advanced electronic components developed for 5G cellphone systems. Sandia is adapting them as digital processing tools to convert huge quantities of analog data to digital signals and vice versa. For example, the tools can transform analog synthetic aperture radar — used for surveillance and intelligence — to a digital version.
The 5G components also allow sensors to receive and transmit massive amounts of data over a much broader bandwidth and process it in real time at the sensor.
“The data is processed to output as actionable products,” Loui noted. “It doesn’t require post-processing.”
The new architecture is jam-resistant because users can digitally tune or change the characteristics of the signals they transmit in real time. That makes them harder to recognize, he added.
It “can generate very high-resolution imagery, but we are no longer tied to ‘chirp’ waveforms. Any adversary that sees a chirp knows they’re being imaged,” Loui said, referring to sweep signals.
The technology is currently being tested aboard a de Havilland Twin Otter aircraft, and could be fielded as early as 2025, according to the lab.