A New Wave of Marine Radar


By Tom Burden, Last updated 1/27/2018

New technology that’s really several decades old is transforming marine radar as we know it. Radically different than anything we’ve seen at the local marina, this new radar tech has been on the job in the aviation industry for decades.

These new open arrays and compact dome radars look familiar, but the elegant engineering is advanced, and it offers some real benefits for the boater.

It’s been called solid state radar, broadband radar, Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW), pulse compression radar and CHIRP. Yes, there are subtle variations, which are primarily interesting to the techies among us. It’s also true that the new radar is similar to CHIRP sonar, another disruptive new technology that’s invading the world of fishfinders. For more on CHIRP, see our West Advisor called What’s CHIRP Sonar?. But for the purposes of this West Advisor, I am referring to all of these new-technology radar units as solid state radar.

Solid state radar advantages

Why this really is interesting, and why it matters to a non-technical boat owner, is because of the advantages solid state radar offers:

  • You can see targets that are closer to your boat, as close as 18 feet ahead! See clearer images, and resolve smaller or overlapping objects. You visualize small, weak targets, even when they’re positioned close to strong returns. Avoiding collisions at night or in conditions of poor visibility just got a lot easier.
  • Instant-on operation means there is no warm-up time, so radar is available in seconds when you need it. Traditional radar, using a high-powered vacuum tube called a magnetron, needs a lengthy warm-up period of up to three minutes.
  • The hazard of potential radiation exposure is reduced, as RF radiation output is a fraction of that generated by traditional “pulse” radar. With new solid state radars transmitting outputs of 40W or less, compared to 4kW for a typical small pulse radar, radiation exposure is less of a concern. This also means you can mount the radar in onboard locations that were never possible before.
  • With less transmitting power, solid state radars draw less power out of your battery bank. The resulting extended vessel battery life under sail is a welcome bonus for the cruising sailor.
Radar

Raymarine’s Quantum Radome easily picks out a navigation marker near the bow of this boat.

How a pulse radar works

To understand what’s new in radar, we’ll take a quick look at the “old school” radars of the past. The heart of these radar units is a device called a magnetron, a vacuum tube that emits an extremely brief, powerful pulse of microwave radiation, 4,000 watts or more. A relatively cheap technology dating from World War II, the magnetron also powers the microwave oven that heats your food in the kitchen.

Although a magnetron works great for heating leftovers, it’s a wasteful and crude machine when employed in a radar, splattering its energy across the frequency spectrum in an unstable pattern that changes from pulse to pulse. This method of generating several kilowatts of pulsed energy has to be coupled with a relatively wide-bandwidth receiver. This allows too much background noise to mask the weak signals from return echoes, so the quality of the image is inherently limited by the technology. Modern pulse radars, often tagged with “HD” or “Digital” as part of the product name, use high-definition digital processing to clean up the signal, but the problems with old, analog magnetron technology remain.

Transmitting one percent of the time, the radar waits for a return echo and then precisely measures how much time passes before it receives the energy reflected from the target. Pulse radars use time to measure distance, and the direction the radar array is aimed at the time of transmission to measure bearing.


Garmin’s Fantom™ Pulse Compression Radar uses the Doppler effect to highlight fast-moving targets.

Broadband transmitter and low power level

Solid state radars eliminate the magnetron, and replace it with a solid-state, broadband transmitter that outputs a clean, frequency-stable signal. It’s coupled to a receiver dialed into a more precise band of frequencies, so it eliminates much of the background noise that would mask the faint echoes from a target.

Solid state radars also transmit at a very low power level, a few watts or less compared to kilowatts for traditional radar, yet they place more energy on the targets and generate sharper returns. How can this be possible? That’s where the second advance in technology, after ditching the magnetron, distinguishes these new radars.

Instead of transmitting a single output pulse, solid state radar transmits a continuous wave of ascending frequency, a Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW). The technology, long used in military radar and recently available for commercial use, is roughly similar to CHIRP sonar. Solid state, broadband radar sends a continuous transmission wave with linear increasing frequency (hence the term broadband). The wave retains its frequency as it travels out and reflects back from any objects. Meanwhile, the transmitter continues to output an increasing frequency. It transmits for roughly ten times as long as a conventional pulse radar—about 1/10th of the time—which helps explain how a solid state, broadband radar transmits more energy onto a target and achieves a sharper return.

Using frequency, not time, to measure distance

The difference between the currently transmitted and received frequencies, coupled with the known rate of frequency increase, is how these radars precisely calculate a “time of flight” and target distance. Since FMCW constantly builds up radar return energy (vs. a single “main bang” transmitted by a pulse radar), this system provides target detection superior to pulse radars while transmitting at far lower energy levels.

What are your solid-state radar choices?

It you’re considering the purchase of one of these new solid state radar units, what are your options, and how should you decide which one to install on your boat? One way to narrow down your choice is to consider which brand of electronics you prefer, as these radars are built to work best with selected same-brand multi-function displays. Garmin’s Fantom™ open array works with their GPSMAP 7400/7600 and 8000-Series displays. Simrad’s Halo works only with their NSS evo2 and NSO evo2 displays, to give two examples. The second question concerns whether you want a radome or an open array. If you need help in answering this question, see our West Advisor called Marine Radar for the Recreational Boater.


Raymarine’s Quantum™ Radome uses CHIRP (Compressed High Intensity Radar Pulse) technology, and offers a simple Wi-Fi connection to your chartplotter.

Solid state radomes

Raymarine’s Quantum and Navico’s Broadband G3 and G4 radomes are competing in the lower price point market, for smaller sail- and powerboat applications. The Navico Broadband G3 comes in Simrad, Lowrance and B&G versions, and is the oldest currently produced solid state product. Navico’s product engineers call it an FMCW radar, with a 24 nautical mile range.

Raymarine’s new Quantum radome is also a 24-mile radar, compatible with their a-, c-, e-, eS and gS Series displays. Installation is simplified with an option for wireless Wi-Fi chartplotter connection to one of their LightHouse II powered displays (some versions also have the option of a wired Ethernet connection). Raymarine calls it a CHIRP pulse compression radar.

Navico’s Broadband G4, the same compact size as their G3 dome, boosts range to 36 miles, lets you see two different ranges at the same time, and uses a beam sharpening technique to improve the level of target separation.

Two new solid state open arrays

Radar

Halo Pulse Compression Radar transmits a low-power pulse to cover the nearest range, then five CHIRPs of increasing length.

Simrad’s Halo open array comes in 3' (48 nautical mile), 4' (64 nm) and 6' (72 nm) array widths. The technology is a tour de force, and the folks at Navico seem quite proud of it. You can read all the details here. These radars can transmit one short, low-power pulse and five CHIRPs in a burst with a repetition rate of 500-2000Hz, and then somehow stitch together all of the ranges captured by these six halo-like rings. The pulse transmission illuminates the inner range of 300' to ¼ mile. The first CHIRP is the shortest in duration, and covers the next closest range. As the CHIRPs increase in length, they penetrate farther, but have a larger dead zone inside the minimum range, so each CHIRP covers the dead zone of the next longer CHIRP.

Halo uses beam sharpening for improved target separation, like their Broadband G4 radome, and operates with dual ranges simultaneously from 300' to 72 nautical miles. It’s got a lot of other amazing capabilities for you to consider, and even the bling factor of blue LED accent lighting to make it look really cool.

Radar

This graphic explains a little about how the Halo™ Radar works. For all the details, download the Halo Product Brief.

Garmin’s new Fantom™ open array

The newcomer here is Garmin’s Fantom™ radar, available in 4' and 6' array sizes, both rated at 72 nautical mile range. Fantom™ uses the Doppler effect, which Garmin calls MotionScope™ Technology, to detect and highlight moving targets, such as small, fast vessels headed your way, flocks of birds or weather cells. The Fantom radar uses both pulse compression and pulse expansion. From the sketchy details available at present, Fantom™ seems like a strong competitor that’s comparable with the Simrad Halo radar.

There’s a lot of new and bleeding-edge technology in all of these new radars. You don’t need to understand how it works to see that these new devices are a step forward, compared to conventional magnetron-powered pulse radars.