From polar bears to smart cars

Radar technology developed 25 years ago to measure the thickness of the polar icecaps is now being used to develop a low cost car safety system.

An innovative car radar system that could be used to avoid crashes, assist in safe lane changing and even help with parking is under development by UK-based Cambridge Consultants Ltd.

While a number of car manufacturers already use radar-based safety systems on some of their high-end models, Gordon Oswald, an associate director at CCL, claims that the new system will cost less and have a greater range of functions.

Reportedly under evaluation by Ford, the technology provides extremely accurate 3D information on the position of any object in the immediate vicinity of a vehicle. This data’s acquired by a small number of 100 x 100mm radar sensors.

The system is based on Ultra Wideband radio (UWB); a wireless technology for transmitting digital data over a wide spectrum of frequency bands with very low power.

Ultra Wideband can not only carry huge amounts of data over a short distance at very low power, but can also be used for very high- resolution radars and precision (sub-centimeter) radio location systems.

In a radar system, UWB technology uses very short duration pulses which provide excellent range resolution (of the order of cm) at lower cost than conventional radars.

The relaxation of regulatory restrictions in the USA and Europe coupled UWB’s inclusion into communication standards are expected to herald a massive increase in its usage.

The story of CCL’s relationship with UWB radar is, claims Oswald, ‘an object lesson’ in technology transfer.

One of the first applications was in the oil industry, where helicopters equipped with UWB radar were used by Exxon to map the arctic ice-sheet and monitor the safety of its drill platforms. This project also made the first, though somewhat serendipitous, positive identification that the ice sheets were melting. Previously, these geophysical surveys were carried out on foot, a time-consuming process in which the ever-present threat of polar bear attack complicated things further.

Technology based on UWB and developed by CCL is also used by a number of governments around the world in missile detection systems.

CCL’s latest application, dubbed Softcar, uses half the number of sensors needed in a conventional car radar system. These sensors, positioned at the four corners of the car provide accurate 360°, 3D coverage of obstacles within a wide field of view.

A short pulse radar transmits a signal about 0.3m long, measures the time between transmission and reception to find range, uses a small antenna array to measure the direction at which each reflection arrives, and measures the speed of approach accurately.

How drivers would be warned of potential hazards is obviously something for the manufacturers to decide, but it is likely that they would opt for either audio feedback (ie an alarm), or some form of force feedback via the steering wheel.

Oswald says that the technology is nearly ready to go into production – the real time demonstration phase is almost complete and the ball is now in the car manufacturers’ court. The only thing holding it back, he claims, is the fact that ‘car companies are very conservative about introducing new technologies, particularly safety devices.’