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Microchip shrinks radar cameras for wider application

23 February 2016

Singaporean scientists have developed a chip that enables new radar cameras to be made a hundred times smaller than current devices.

NTU's tiny microchip for radar imaging embedded on a PCB board (the small square chip on the upper right of this photograph)

With this technology, developed by scientists at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore), radar cameras that usually weigh between 50kg and 200kg and are commonly used in large satellites can be made small enough to be included onboard much smaller satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Despite their small size, they can produce images that are of the same high quality, if not better, compared to conventional radar cameras. They are also 20 times cheaper to produce and consume at least 75 percent less power.

Assistant Professor Zheng Yuanjin from NTU’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering who led the research, said that the size and effectiveness of the chip will open up new applications.

“We have significantly shrunk the conventional radar camera into a system that is extremely compact and affordable, yet provides better accuracy," he says. "This will enable high resolution imaging radar technology to be used in objects and applications never before possible, like small drones, driverless cars and small satellite systems.”

Current radar camera systems are usually between half and two metres in length and weigh up to 200kg. They cost more than US$1 million and can have a power consumption of more than a kilowatt-hour

Known as Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), these radar cameras are often carried by large satellites and aircraft to produce detailed images of the Earth’s surface. And unlike optical cameras which cannot work well at night or in cloudy conditions, a radar camera uses microwaves (X-band or Ku-band) for its imaging, so it can operate well in all weather conditions and can even penetrate through foliage.

But the huge size, prohibitive cost and energy consumption are deterrents for use in smaller satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles.

NTU’s new radar chip, however, measures 2mm x 3mm, and when packaged into a module, measures only 3cm x 4cm x 5cm and weighs less than 100g. Moreover, production costs can be as low as US$10,000 per unit, while power consumption ranges from 1 to 200W, depending on application. It can also capture objects as small as half a metre in length.

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