• Published:April 13, 2018
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This ain't your father's radar.

In the past five years we've seen major changes in radar functionality and features. It's always been fairly easy to distinguish predators from bait on a fish finder. And if you can read a map, you can understand a basic chart plotter screen, but radar has always been a different story.
Between all the blips and blobs, phantom targets, and interference provided by everything from seagulls to rain storms, accurately tuning a radar and comprehending what its screen was telling you required experience, interpretation, and maybe even a bit of intuition. Today, however, it’s a different story.

MAN VS. MACHINE




The first and possibly biggest development that’s made radar easier than ever to use has to do with tuning it. Advanced algorithms allow modern radar to eliminate things like sea clutter and rain all on their own, automatically.

You think you can do a better job of tuning a radar than the unit’s own internal brain? Go ahead and try. I dare you. Several years ago when manufacturers began claiming that their radar needed no help from the user to provide the best possible picture I called BS, and spent a day matching my own smarts up against the artificial intelligence of three new units. We ran through a list of tasks ranging from tuning out sea clutter without degrading target returns, to setting the optimal sensitivity for spotting birds without creating a screen full of garbage. And we quickly discovered that the machines were far better at tuning themselves than we were. On top of that, they did so instantaneously.

These days all you need to do is set the screen up the way you like it and choose a range. Beyond that, most of the adjustments you make are more likely to downgrade the units’ effectiveness than enhance it.

MASSACRE THE MAGNETRON

Another huge leap forward in the world of radar is the elimination of the magnetron. Yes, there are still plenty of units out there that depend on a magnetron to blast out gobs of power but most radars are solid-state.

A solid-state radar replaces the magnetron with a multi-spectrum transmitter that sends out much lower-powered pulses in a continuous transmission wave. The wave increases in frequency as it moves away from the radar antenna, hits a target, and is reflected back. Rather than use the time between transmission and reception to calculate distance to that target, the unit uses the change in transmitted and received frequencies. The advantages to this type of radar are significant, and numerous:


  • There’s no “main bang,” the usual circle of blindness a magnetron radar creates around itself for the first hundred feet or so, thanks to their big blasts of power. As a result, a solid-state unit can see targets that are much closer in, even just 20 or so feet away from the boat.

  • Target discrimination is excellent, and a boat bobbing close to a buoy will show up as two distinct targets where a traditional radar would often meld them into one.

  • Sensitivity is vastly increased. You no longer need a large, tightly-packed flock of birds to pick up those feathered friends from afar, just a few will do.

  • Power transmission is close to that of a cell phone. You no longer have to worry about “cooking” people with your radar’s potent microwaves no matter how close they may be.

  • Power draw is also greatly reduced as compared to a magnetron-equipped radar unit.


For several years the biggest down-side to solid-state radar was a somewhat limited range. Early models could only reach out to 24 miles, and it took time to develop units that extended that range to 36 miles. Today, however, there are solid-state radar that have up to 72 miles of range.

DOWN WITH DOPPLER

Many modern radar systems incorporate Doppler technology to interpret their displays. The Doppler effect is a change in frequency relative to distance. Think of the sound an ambulance’s siren makes as the ambulance gets closer and closer, passes you and moves farther away. Sure, the volume changes, but setting that aside, the pitch changes too. That’s the Doppler effect, and incorporating into a radar’s brain allows the unit to accurately determine when a target is moving and the direction of movement regardless of the motion (or lack thereof) of your own boat.

Radar systems that incorporate Doppler can apply trails to moving targets, so you can tell at a glance what direction they’re traveling relative to your vessel. Many units paint these targets red if they pose a collision danger or blue or green if they do not.

MIXED BAG

Newer radars are quieter and the hum you heard from above for years and years is mostly a thing of the past. Radar functionality is built into virtually every serious MFD manufactured today, so the vast majority of the units now on the market offer plug-and-play functionality and add-on black boxes are also a thing of the past. And as is the case with many forms of consumer electronics the prices of radar have come down over time, as opposed to rising. A solid-state enclosed dome unit can be added to most systems for under $2,000, and often significantly less. And in several cases radar antenna which are WiFi-equipped work with MFDs that are also WiFi-capable, eliminating the need to route a cable between the two.

If you’re working with a radar that’s more than 10 years old, you have a unit that’s thoroughly obsolete. And if the thought of adding a new unit to your boat sounds intimidating, put your worries because today’s radar is nothing like your father’s.

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