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Radar Navigation (Ground Based)

in Navigation Systems

Radar works by transmitting a pulse of RF energy in a specific direction. The return of the echo or bounce of that pulse from a target is precisely timed. From this, the distance traveled by the pulse and its echo is determined and displayed on a radar screen in such a manner that the distance and bearing to this target can be instantly determined. The radar transmitter must be capable of delivering extremely high power levels toward the airspace under surveillance, and the associated radar receiver must be able to detect extremely small signal levels of the returning echoes.

The radar display system provides the controller with a map-like presentation upon which appear all the radar echoes of aircraft within detection range of the radar facility. By means of electronically generated range marks and azimuth-indicating devices, the controller can locate each radar target with respect to the radar facility, or can locate one radar target with respect to another.

Another device, a video-mapping unit, generates an actual airway or airport map and presents it on the radar display equipment. Using the video-mapping feature, the air traffic controller not only can view the aircraft targets, but can see these targets in relation to runways, navigation aids, and hazardous ground obstructions in the area. Therefore, radar becomes a NAVAID, as well as the most significant means of traffic separation.

In a display presenting perhaps a dozen or more targets, a primary surveillance radar system cannot identify one specific radar target, and it may have difficulty “seeing” a small target at considerable distance—especially if there is a rain shower or thunderstorm between the radar site and the aircraft. This problem is solved with the Air Traffic Control Radar Beacon System (ATCRBS), sometimes called secondary surveillance radar (SSR), which utilizes a transponder in the aircraft. The ground equipment is an interrogating unit, in which the beacon antenna is mounted so it rotates with the surveillance antenna. The interrogating unit transmits a coded pulse sequence that actuates the aircraft transponder. The transponder answers the coded sequence by transmitting a preselected coded sequence back to the ground equipment, providing a strong return signal and positive aircraft identification, as well as other special data such as aircraft altitude.

Functions of Radar Navigation

The radar systems used by ATC are air route surveillance radar (ARSR), airport surveillance radar (ASR), and precision approach radar (PAR) and airport surface detection equipment

(ASDE). Surveillance radars scan through 360° of azimuth and present target information on a radar display located in a tower or center. This information is used independently or in conjunction with other navigational aids in the control of air traffic.

ARSR is a long-range radar system designed primarily to cover large areas and provide a display of aircraft while en route between terminal areas. The ARSR enables air route traffic control center (ARTCC) controllers to provide radar service when the aircraft are within the ARSR coverage. In some instances, ARSR may enable ARTCC to provide terminal radar services similar to but usually more limited than those provided by a radar approach control.

ASR is designed to provide relatively short-range coverage in the general vicinity of an airport and to serve as an expeditious means of handling terminal area traffic through observation of precise aircraft locations on a radarscope. Nonprecision instrument approaches are available at airports that have an approved surveillance radar approach procedure. ASR provides radar vectors to the final approach course and then azimuth information to the pilot during the approach. In addition to range (distance) from the runway, the pilot is advised of MDA, when to begin descent, and when the aircraft is at the MDA. If requested, recommended altitudes will be furnished each mile while on final.

PAR is designed to be used as a landing aid displaying range, azimuth, and elevation information rather than as an aid for sequencing and spacing aircraft. PAR equipment may be used as a primary landing aid, or it may be used to monitor other types of approaches. Two antennas are used in the PAR array, one scanning a vertical plane, and the other scanning horizontally. Since the range is limited to 10 miles, azimuth to 20°, and elevation to 7°, only the final approach area is covered. The controller’s scope is divided into two parts. The upper half presents altitude and distance information, and the lower half presents azimuth and distance.

PAR is a system in which a controller provides highly accurate navigational guidance in azimuth and elevation to a pilot. Pilots are given headings to fly to direct them to and keep their aircraft aligned with the extended centerline of the landing runway. They are told to anticipate glide path interception approximately 10–30 seconds before it occurs and when to start descent. The published decision height (DH) is given only if the pilot requests it. If the aircraft is observed to deviate above or below the glide path, the pilot is given the relative amount of deviation by use of terms “slightly” or “well” and is expected to adjust the aircraft’s rate of descent/ascent to return to the glide path. Trend information is also issued with respect to the elevation of the aircraft and may be modified by the terms “rapidly” and “slowly” (e.g., “well above glide path, coming down rapidly”). Range from touchdown is given at least once each mile.

If an aircraft is observed by the controller to proceed outside of specified safety zone limits in azimuth and/or elevation and continue to operate outside these prescribed limits, the pilot will be directed to execute a missed approach or to fly a specified course unless the pilot has the runway environment (runway, approach lights, etc.) in sight. Navigational guidance in azimuth and elevation is provided to the pilot until the aircraft reaches the published decision altitude (DA)/DH. Advisory course and glide path information is furnished by the controller until the aircraft passes over the landing threshold, at which point the pilot is advised of any deviation from the runway centerline. Radar service is automatically terminated upon completion of the approach.

Airport Surface Detection Equipment

Radar equipment is specifically designed to detect all principal features on the surface of an airport, including aircraft and vehicular traffic, and to present the entire image on a radar indicator console in the control tower. It is used to augment visual observation by tower personnel of aircraft and/or vehicular movements on runways and taxiways.

Radar Limitations

  1. It is very important for the aviation community to recognize the fact that there are limitations to radar service and that ATC controllers may not always be able to issue traffic advisories concerning aircraft which are not under ATC control and cannot be seen on radar.
  2. The characteristics of radio waves are such that they normally travel in a continuous straight line unless they are “bent” by abnormal atmospheric phenomena such as temperature inversions; reflected or attenuated by dense objects such as heavy clouds, precipitation, ground obstacles, mountains, etc.; or screened by high terrain features.
  3. Primary radar energy that strikes dense objects will be reflected and displayed on the operator’s scope, thereby blocking out aircraft at the same range and greatly weakening or completely eliminating the display of targets at a greater range.
  4. Relatively low altitude aircraft will not be seen if they are screened by mountains or are below the radar beam due to curvature of the Earth.
  5. The amount of reflective surface of an aircraft will determine the size of the radar return. Therefore, a small light airplane or a sleek jet fighter will be more difficult to see on primary radar than a large commercial jet or military bomber.
  6. All ARTCC radar in the conterminous United States and many ASR have the capability to interrogate Mode C and display altitude information to the controller from appropriately equipped aircraft. However, a number of ASR do not have Mode C display capability; therefore, altitude information must be obtained from the pilot.


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