Officials Discuss Phased-Array Radar in Norman

Wednesday, October 10th 2007, 5:26 pm
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) -- A decades-old piece of spare Navy equipment housed near Max Westheimer Airport is leading to some groundbreaking research at the National Weather Center.

The phased-array radar has been used by the Navy for years to track military ships, aircraft and missiles. But now the technology is being modified for civilian applications, like weather forecasting, commercial airline traffic monitoring and even homeland security.

Government, academia and private industry officials from across the United States are gathering at the National Weather Center in Norman this week to discuss how to transition the phased-array technology from military to civilian applications.

``We're not at a point now where we can implement this system,'' said Dr. Jeff Kimpel, director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman. ``We're at a point where this is exciting technology, and it's a candidate to perform functions for a multitude of agencies.''

Unlike a traditional radar with one antenna attached to a dish that must be mechanically moved to sweep across a section of the atmosphere, the phased-array technology uses electronic scanning with thousands of antennas to quickly provide a three-dimensional image of the atmosphere.

As a result, weather pattern images that currently take about five minutes to develop with existing radar systems can be completed in less than one minute, greatly increasing the ability of forecasters to increase warning times for severe weather.

``Phased-array radar has the potential to be the next and most significant technological advancements to improve our nation's essential weather, aviation, defense, and homeland security services,'' said retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and an administrator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

One major obstacle to using phased-array radar in civilian applications is the cost, which is estimated at about $10.5 million for one radar, said Samuel Williamson, federal coordinator for meteorological services and supporting research who advises the U.S. Congress on science policy.

Williamson said one of the goals of this week's symposium in Norman is to bring together stakeholders from government, academia and private industry to develop a path toward a national radar system using phased-array technology.

``As exciting as this technology is, there is much research and development that needs to be done,'' Williamson said. ``We must map out an ultimate configuration and determine the true costs and capabilities of a national system.''

Over the next decade, Williamson said he envisions a system being put in place that will replace the current aging radar system used for air traffic control with a phased-array system that also can provide weather data and provide national security surveillance of ships and aircraft.