The ability to see through walls is no longer the stuff of science fiction, thanks to new radar technology developed at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.
The researchers’ device is an unassuming array of antenna arranged into two rows — eight receiving elements on top, 13 transmitting ones below — and some computing equipment, all mounted onto a movable cart. But it has powerful implications for military operations, especially “urban combat situations,” says Gregory Charvat, technical staff at Lincoln Lab and the leader of the project.
At first, their radar functions as any other: Transmitters emit waves of a certain frequency in the direction of the target. But in this case, each time the waves hit the wall, the concrete blocks more than 99 percent of them from passing through. And that’s only half the battle: Once the waves bounce off any targets, they must pass back through the wall to reach the radar’s receivers — and again, 99 percent don’t make it. By the time it hits the receivers, the signal is reduced to about 0.0025 percent of its original strength.
But according to Charvat, signal loss from the wall is not even the main challenge. “[Signal] amplifiers are cheap,” he says. What has been difficult for through-wall radar systems is achieving the speed, resolution and range necessary to be useful in real time. “If you’re in a high-risk combat situation, you don’t want one image every 20 minutes, and you don’t want to have to stand right next to a potentially dangerous building,” Charvat says.
The Lincoln Lab team’s system may be used at a range of up to 60 feet away from the wall. (Demos were done at 20 feet, which Charvat says is realistic for an urban combat situation.) And, it gives a real-time picture of movement behind the wall in the form of a video at the rate of 10.8 frames per second.
Real-time through-wall imaging using an ultrawideband multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) phased array radar system
A real-time acquisition and processing architecture has been developed for an ultrawideband (UWB) S-band (2-4 GHz) multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) phased array radar system that facilitates greater than 10 Hz imaging rates, providing a video-like radar image of what is behind a concrete wall. Video rate imaging enhances the interpretability of range vs. range through-wall and free-space radar imagery. Images are formed without a-priori information. Video framerate imaging is achieved by designing an electronically switched bi-static array using high-performance microwave components, a multi-threaded data pipeline, and efficient hardware-accelerated processing algorithms. Experiments successfully image low radar cross section (RCS) objects, fast moving objects in free-space, and a human behind a 10 cm-thick solid concrete wall.
One consideration for through-wall radar, Charvat says, is what radio wavelength to use. Longer wavelengths are better able to pass through the wall and back, which makes for a stronger signal; however, they also require a correspondingly larger radar apparatus to resolve individual human targets. The researchers settled on S-band waves, which have about the same wavelength as wireless Internet — that is, fairly short. That means more signal loss — hence the need for amplifiers — but the actual radar device can be kept to about eight and a half feet long. “This, we believe, was a sweet spot because we think it would be mounted on a vehicle of some kind,” Charvat says.
Even when the signal-strength problem is addressed with amplifiers, the wall — whether it’s concrete, adobe or any other solid substance — will always show up as the brightest spot by far. To get around this problem, the researchers use an analog crystal filter, which exploits frequency differences between the modulated waves bouncing off the wall and those coming from the target. “So if the wall is 20 feet away, let’s say, it shows up as a 20-kilohertz sine wave. If you, behind the wall, are 30 feet away, maybe you’ll show up as a 30-kilohertz sine wave,” Charvat says. The filter can be set to allow only waves in the range of 30 kilohertz to pass through to the receivers, effectively deleting the wall from the image so that it doesn’t overpower the receiver.
Lincoln Laboratory researchers John Peabody and Gregory Charvat explains how their team’s system can see through walls. Video: Melanie Gonick
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