Advanced 2lb radar system bolsters unmanned aircraft

Looking to pack high-end radar and navigation systems into a small unmanned aircraft, Boeing today said it successfully tested a system that weighs 2lbs at various altitudes and flight ranges.

The radar system, built by ImSAR, is called NanoSAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) and is about the size of a shoebox. It includes the navigation system, antennas, cabling, real-time processor and RF access point. ImSAR says typical SAR platforms weigh as much as a motorcycle engine up to 200 lbs.

The system is supposed to bring high quality real-time ground imaging through adverse weather or battlefield conditions.

The system is mounted on Boeing's ScanEagle, which was developed with Insitu as a low-cost, long-endurance autonomous unmanned aircraft to provide persistent surveillance and reconnaissance as well as flexible, rapid deployment for a variety of government and civilian applications. The ScanEagle has a 10-foot wingspan and can cruise along at about 140MPH.

A ScanEagle carries inertially stabilized electro-optical and infrared cameras. The gimbaled cameras allow the operator to easily track both stationary and moving targets. The aircraft is capable of flying above 16,000 feet and loitering over the battlefield for more than 24 hours.

During the 1.5-hour test flight on Jan. 7 at the Boardman, Ore. test range, a ScanEagle with NanoSAR, completed several passes over the target area at various altitudes and ranges. The targets included vehicles, structures and corner reflectors. Data collection onboard the ScanEagle worked as planned, and SAR imagery was later created on the ground. The next step in flight testing will be to create imagery aboard the ScanEagle in real time, Boeing said in a release.

"In the past, the advantages of SARs' all-weather imaging capabilities have been the exclusive domain of only larger unmanned aircraft. Now, even the 40-pound ScanEagle can carry both an electro-optical or infrared camera and a SAR payload at the same time," said Carol Wilke, ScanEagle chief engineer for Boeing.

The ScanEagle has been in uses for quite a while. It has logged more than 70,000 combat flight hours with the US Marines, the US Navy and the Australia Defense Force in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Navy has logged more than 900 shipboard recoveries using ScanEagle.

Advanced technology is being required more often as unmanned aircraft grow in use, especially in military applications. For example, the Army last month awarded General Atomics an $18.6 million contract to continue developing an extended range/multi-purpose unmanned aerial vehicle. The contract is but one of the extended range unmanned aircraft military planners are looking at for the next few years. In addition, there is more than $500 million for unmanned aircraft systems in the fiscal 2008 war supplemental, which Congress has yet to act on.

DARPA said recently that unmanned aircraft have fundamentally changed air warfare and it will continue to develop bigger, better unmanned aircraft. For example, on its plate is an aircraft known as Vulture. The objective of the Vulture program is to develop an aircraft capable of remaining on-station uninterrupted for over five years to perform intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and communication missions, DARPA said. The technology challenges include development of energy management and reliability technologies capable of allowing the aircraft to operate continuously for five years.

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