Build a Phased-Array Radar in Your Garage that Sees Through Walls

Until recently phased array radar has been very expensive, used only for military applications where the cost of survival weighs in the balance. With the advent of low-cost microwave devices and unconventional architecture phased array radar is now within the reach of the hobbyist and consumer electronics developer. In this post we will review the basics of phased-array radar and show examples of how to make low-cost short-range phased array radar systems — I built the one seen here in my garage! Sense more with more elements by making phase array your next radar project.

Phased array radar

In a previous post the basics of radar were described where a typical radar system is made up of a large parabolic antenna that rotates. The microwave beam projected by this antenna is swept over the horizon as it rotates. Scattered pulses from targets are displayed on a polar display known as a Plan Position Indicator (PPI).

Block diagram of a conventional radar system using a parabolic dish.
Block diagram of a conventional radar system using a parabolic dish.

In a phased array radar (PDF) system an array of antenna elements are used instead of the dish. These elements are phase-coherent, meaning they are all phase-referenced to the same transmitter and receiver. Each element is wired in series with a phase shifter that can be adjusted arbitrarily by the radar’s control system. A beam of microwave energy is focused by applying a phase rotation to each phase shifter. This beam can be directed anywhere within the array’s field of view. To scan the beam rotate the phases of the phase shifters accordingly. Like the rotating parabolic dish, a phased array can scan the horizon but without the use of moving parts.

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Retrotechtacular: Wising Up with the SAGE System

The birth of the supersonic jet made the United States’ airstrike defenses look antiquated. And so, during the Cold War, the government contracted a number of institutions and vendors to create and maintain the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) aircraft detection system with Western Electric as project manager.

SAGE was developed at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory on computers built by IBM. It used the AN/FSQ-7 in fact, which was The Largest Computer Ever Built. SAGE operated as a network of defense sectors that divided the continental U.S. and Canada. Each of these sectors contained a directional center, which was a four-story concrete blockhouse that protected and operated a ‘Q7 through its own dedicated power station. The SAGE computers employed hot standby processors for maximum uptime and would fail over to nearby direction centers when necessary.

Information is fed into each directional center from many radar sources on land, in the air, and at sea. The findings are evaluated on scopes in dimly-lit rooms on the front end and stored on magnetic cores on the back end. Unidentifiable aircraft traces processed in the air surveillance room of the directional center are sent to the ID room where they are judged for friendliness. If found unfriendly, they are sent to the weapons direction room for possible consequences.

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Building a Horn Antenna for Radar

So you’ve built yourself an awesome radar system but it’s not performing as well as you had hoped. You assume this may have something to do with the tin cans you are using for antennas. The obvious next step is to design and build a horn antenna spec’d to work for your radar system. [Henrik] did exactly this as a way to improve upon his frequency modulated continuous wave radar system.

To start out, [Henrik] designed the antenna using CST software, an electromagnetic simulation program intended for this type of work. His final design consists of a horn shape with a 100mm x 85mm aperture and a length of 90mm. The software simulation showed an expected gain of 14.4dB and a beam width of 35 degrees. His old cantennas only had about 6dB with a width of around 100 degrees.

The two-dimensional components of the antenna were all cut from sheet metal. These pieces were then welded together. [Henrik] admits that his precision may be off by as much as 2mm in some cases, which will affect the performance of the antenna. A sheet of metal was also placed between the two horns in order to reduce coupling between the antennas.

[Henrik] tested his new antenna in a local football field. He found that his real life antenna did not perform quite as well as the simulation. He was able to achieve about 10dB gain with a field width of 44 degrees. It’s still a vast improvement over the cantenna design.

If you haven’t given Radar a whirl yet, check out [Greg Charvat’s] words of encouragement and then dive right in!

Trinket uses RF to track you through the house

If you carry a cell phone with GPS, you always know where you are on the planet. But what about inside buildings or even your own home? Knowing if you’re in the kitchen or the living room would be a great feature for home automation systems. Lights could come on as you enter the room and your music could follow you on the home audio system. This is exactly the what [Eric] is working on with his Radiolocation using a Pocket Size Transceiver project. [Eric] started this project as an entry in the Trinket Everyday Carry Contest. He didn’t make the top 3, but was one of the fierce competitors who made the competition very hard to judge!

The heart of the project is determining Time Of Flight (TOF) for a radio signal. Since radio waves move at the speed of light, this is no small feat for an Arduino based design! [Eric] isn’t re-inventing the wheel though – he’s basing his design on several research papers, which he’s linked to his project description. Time of flight calculations get easier to handle when calculating round trip times rather than one way. To handle this, one or more base stations send out pings, which are received and returned by small transponders worn by a user. By averaging over many round trip transmissions, a distance estimation can be calculated.

[Eric] used a Pro Trinket as his mobile transponder, while an Arduino Micro with it’s 16 bit counter acted as the base station. For RF, he used the popular  Nordic nRF24L01+ 2.4 GHz transceiver modules. Even with this simple hardware, he’s achieved great results. So far he can display distance between base and transponder on a graph. Not bad for a DIY transponder so small if fits in a 2xAAA battery case! [Eric’s] next task is working through multipath issues, and testing out multiple base stations.

Click past the break to see [Eric’s] project in action!

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Green-Sweep for Your Ultrasonic Rangefinder

Maybe you’ve never programmed an Arduino before. Or maybe you have, but nothing beyond das blinkenlights. Maybe your soldering iron sits in a corner of your garage, gazing at you reproachfully every time you walk by, like a ball begging to be thrown. Maybe you’ve made a few nifty projects, but have never interfaced them with a PC. If this describes you, then this article and project is just what you need. So grab your favorite beverage, tuck in and prepare to get motivated.

[Anuj Dutt] has not only made a really cool project, he has also done a most excellent job at documenting it. It’s an Arduino controlled “RADAR” like project that uses the familiar Parallax ultrasonic sensor. It’s mounted to a servo and feeds data to a PC where a custom VB.NET program translates the data in to a cool “green radar sweep” screen. It also pushes text to an LCD which reveals the distance from the target.

screenshot of radar program

[Anuj Dutt] hand rolled his Arduino just because, but ran into some trouble getting everything to talk to the PC. He wound up using the ultra user friendly FTDI to save the day. Be sure to check out the video below to see the project in action. [Anuj] published the code for both the Arduino and PC in the video description.

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Extremely Detailed FMCW Radar Build

A lot of hackers take the “learn by doing” approach: take something apart, figure out how it works, and re-purpose all of the parts. [Henrik], however, has taken the opposite approach. After “some” RF design courses, he decided that he had learned enough to build his own frequency-modulated continuous wave radar system. From the level of detail on this project, we’d say that he’s learned an incredible amount.

[Henrik] was looking to keep costs down and chose to run his radar in the 6 GHz neighborhood. This puts it right in a frequency spectrum (at least in his area) where radar and WiFi overlap each other. This means cheap and readily available parts (antennas etc) and a legal spectrum in which to operate them. His design also includes frequency modulation, which means that it will be able to determine an object’s distance as well as its speed.

There are many other design considerations for a radar system that don’t enter into a normal project. For example, the PCB must have precisely controlled trace widths so that the impedance will exactly match the design. In a DC or low-frequency AC system this isn’t as important as it is in a high-frequency system like this. There is a fascinating amount of information about this impressive project on [Henrik]’s project page if you’re looking to learn a little more about radio or radar.

Too daunting for you? Check out this post on how to take on your first radar project.

THP Semifinalist: A Continuous Wave Radar

There aren’t many Hackaday Prize entries playing around in RF, save for the handful of projects using off the shelf radio modules. That’s a little surprising to us, considering radio is one of the domains where garage-based tinkerers have always been very active. [Luke] is bucking the trend with a FM continuous wave radar, to be used in experiments with autonomous aircraft, altitude finding, and synthetic aperture radar imaging.

[Luke]’s radar operates around 5.8-6 GHz, and is supposed to be an introduction to microwave electronics. It’s an extremely modular system built around a few VCOs, mixers, and amplifiers from Hittite, all connected with coax.

So far, [Luke] has all his modules put together, a great pair of cans for the antennas, everything confirmed as working on his scope, and a lot of commits to his git repo.

You can check out [Luke]’s demo video is available below.


SpaceWrencherThe project featured in this post is a quarterfinalist in The Hackaday Prize.

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