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New chip can shrink radar cameras to fit into palm

Wednesday, Feb 24, 2016,16:29 IST By Metrovaartha A A A

Singapore | Scientists have developed a microchip that can be used in new radar cameras that are a hundred times smaller than current ones and consume at least 75 per cent less power.

With the technology, radar cameras that usually weigh between 50 kg and 200 kg and are commonly used in large satellites can be made to become as small as palm-sized. Despite being small, they can produce images that are of the same high quality if not better compared to conventional radar cameras, researchers said. They are also 20 times cheaper to produce and consume at least 75 per cent less power, researchers said.

The radar chip has attracted the attention of several multinational corporations, and is now being researched for use in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and satellite applications, they said. We have significantly shrunk the conventional radar camera into a system that is extremely compact and affordable, yet provides better accuracy, said Zheng Yuanjin from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. This will enable high resolution imaging radar technology to be used in objects and applications never before possible, like small drones, driver-less cars and small satellite systems, said Yuanjin.

Current radar camera systems are usually between half and two metres in length and weigh up to 200 kg. They can consume over 1000 watts in electricity per hour, the energy equivalent of a household air-conditioning unit running for an hour. Known as Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), these large radar cameras are often carried by large satellites and aircrafts that produce detailed images of the Earth’s surface.

Objects longer than a metre, such as cars and boats, can be easily seen by the radar camera mounted on an aircraft flying at a height of 11 kilometres. Unlike optical cameras which cannot work well at night due to insufficient light or in cloudy conditions, a radar camera uses microwaves  for its imaging, so it can operate well in all weather conditions and can even penetrate through foliage, researchers said.

These detailed images from radar cameras can be used for environmental monitoring of disasters like forest fires, volcano eruptions and earthquakes as well as to monitor cities for traffic congestions and urban density, they said. But the huge size, prohibitive cost and energy consumption are deterrents for use in smaller unmanned aerial vehicles and autonomous vehicles.

In comparison, NTU’s new radar chip (2 millimetres x 3 millimetres) when packaged into a module measures only 3 centimetres x 4 centimetres x 5 centimetres, weighing less than 100 grammes. Production costs can go as low as USD 10,000 per unit, while power consumption ranges from 1 to 200 watts depending on its application, similar to power-efficient LED TVs or a ceiling fan, researchers said.