Radar Conference to Focus on the Arctic

Improved radar technology will help expand the region’s development

11 February 2013

As climate changes make the Arctic more accessible, radar’s role in the region’s development is growing. This year’s annual IEEE Radar Conference will focus on that role, including the emerging technologies needed to support expanded development and the technical challenges involved. RadarCon, to be held in Ottawa from 29 April to 3 May, is cosponsored by the IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems Society and the IEEE Ottawa Section.

“Thanks to perhaps the most dramatic environmental change in modern history, the Northwest Passage is about to become one of the world’s major shipping routes,” says IEEE Senior Member Tony Ponsford, RadarCon’s cochair. The Northwest Passage is a sea route, long blocked by ice, that passes north along the coast of North America and through the Arctic Ocean and connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

“In five of the past six summers, ships have been able to traverse the passage without icebreakers—the first time in recorded history,” Ponsford adds. “In 15 to 25 years, it should be possible year-round.”

Via the Northwest Passage, trips between the North Atlantic and the Pacific will be about 7000 km shorter than via the Panama Canal, the usual route. For ships too large for the canal, the sailing distance will be about 17 000 km shorter than around South America’s Cape Horn. This will also open up the Arctic interior for mineral exploitation, according to Ponsford.

Radar, especially from satellites, will be a game changer for the Arctic, according to IEEE Senior Member Maria Rey, the conference’s general chair. IEEE Senior Member Raed Abdullah, the conference finance chair, says radar will “help spur economic growth, enable reduced fuel usage and carbon emissions through shortened sea routes, and help nations such as Canada monitor activities in remote areas of their territory.”

“Radar technologies now give circumpolar nations [countries in the Arctic region] significant capability to survey the entire Arctic with sufficient frequency and accuracy to detect man-made activity and significant natural changes,” Rey says. “We can use the existing RadarSAT, for example, to monitor ship activities as well as such natural phenomena as ice growth and recession and floes, as well as distinguishing new-year ice (which is easier for ships to break through) from multiyear ice and detecting other impediments to shipping. Satellite-based radar can determine wind speed and direction from wave patterns on the ocean surface.” 

By comparing old and new radar images, it’s possible to detect man-made changes, such as new buildings and airstrips (signs of authorized or unauthorized mining and fishing activites). “Using fine-resolution modes, satellite radar can even detect vehicle tracks in snow,” says Rey. “And by 2018, Canada hopes to have a constellation of three satellites, allowing more frequent looks at any area of interest.

“Coastal radar stations could be put up to monitor shipping choke points, but the cost of putting up infrastructure in the Arctic makes space-based systems more practical,” Rey continues. “But land-based, high-frequency [HF] skywave radar, which reduces infrastructure cost by extending range beyond the horizon, now looks like it may become feasible in the Arctic despite the ionospheric clutter from such phenomena as the aurora borealis.”

Because the Arctic has little infrastructure, surveillance will require a huge effort to deploy land, sea, and satellite-based radar and then integrate their data with other sensors and systems to do such things as identify ships and planes. “It’s a vast area and a very hostile environment,” says Ponsford, an engineering fellow at Raytheon Canada, in Waterloo, Ont., and a specialist in HF surface wave radar and integrated maritime surveillance systems. “And systems have to operate without maintenance for a very long time.”

About 500 people are expected to attend the conference, with more than two-thirds from government and academia and the rest from industry. The roughly 150 papers and 120 posters to be presented will be divided into seven session tracks covering research and advanced concepts in such areas as the environment and remote sensing, antenna technology, radar systems and concepts, propagation phenomena, radar signal and data processing, and an industry showcase track.

The showcase track is a new feature for the radar conference, points out David Forster, RadarCon’s chair for partnerships and local arrangements. It enables companies to describe their advances in commercially available radar technologies such as space-based radar, near real-time surveillance, automatic target detection, and fusion of radar data with other information, Forster explains. That’s in addition to the conference’s commercial exposition, where Forster expects up to 40 exhibitors, representing radar equipment makers, systems integrators, RF component and test equipment manufacturers, and airborne and maritime surveillance equipment operators.  

There will also be special invited-paper sessions on spectrum management (HF radar operates in a crowded band), space-based radar and its applications, and a session commemorating the noted radar researcher Irving Reed, who died last year. Reed was known for pioneering work on space-time adaptive processing (STAP), which greatly increases radar’s sensitivity to small, buried, or fast-moving targets.

RadarCon will also offer tutorials on over-the-horizon radar (particularly useful with the Arctic’s vast distances between land stations), digital radar, STAP, and bistatic and inverse synthetic-aperture radar.

“More will be covered than just radar’s Arctic applications,” says Rey. “With radar technology becoming far less costly, it’s become part of people’s daily lives—such as radar in cars for parking and active cruise control. I expect those will be discussed at this conference, too.”

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