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Plane or wind turbine? Holographic radar knows

Aveillant's three-dimensional holographic radar system resolves a problem that wind farms create for air traffic control and air defense radar systems.

An artist's rendering of the on-site equipment needed for the holographic radar, which can be placed within a few miles of a wind farm.
An artist's rendering of the on-site equipment needed for the holographic radar, which can be placed within a few miles of a wind farm.

A U.K. company plans to give airport radar systems the equivalent of better reading glasses, allowing them to distinguish between spinning wind turbine blades and aircraft flying nearby.

Cambridge Consultants announced on Tuesday that it is spinning out Aveillant as a separate company to develop a holographic radar system specifically built for wind farms. With it, airport or military radar will get an accurate picture of the location of planes near wind turbines, said Aveillant chief technology officer Gordon Oswald.

Conflict between air traffic control and wind turbines is blamed for derailing a number of wind projects and has been a barrier to further wind growth. Aveillant plans a test in the middle of next year in the U.K., where much work has already been done on the issue, but it's a growing concern in other countries at airports and military bases.

Conventional radar systems have trouble distinguishing between the spinning blades of turbines in a wind farm and aircraft in a few ways. The blades can appear as a moving airplane or an aircraft above a farm may suddenly jump position on the radar display (though not in reality), according to experts.

To address this issue, Cambridge Consultants is adapting three-dimensional holographic radar, already used in anti-terrorism and military applications, for wind farms.

Instead of scanning the horizon with a narrow beam, the holographic radar "looks in all directions all the time," explained Oswald. By scanning a greater number of positions, the radar receiver collects huge amounts of data that can then be processed by Aveillant computers and fed to airport radar systems.

"The receiver forms hundreds of beams...Whereas a conventional radar system sequences the data, this radar is looking at all things all the time," he explained.

The equipment, which looks like a small house, would be installed near a wind farm and costs would be covered by the wind farm operator. Oswald said the cost is less than 1 percent of the capital and operating costs.

Other aerospace companies, including Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, are also actively working on this issue. Conflicts between radar and wind farms have already derailed or delayed thousands of megawatts worth of generating capacity.

Oswald said other technical fixes are suitable in different situations. "We can't see a circumstance where this solution would not work. We're not trying to reduce the sensitivity (of radar) in order for it not to see something. We're trying to get the maximum amount of information and tell the difference," he said. In a test at an airport in Scotland, the system was able to discern between a plane flying around a turbine and the turbine itself, he added.

One of the key enablers of holographic radar is cheaper high-end compute power. The on-site radar receiver sends data to Aveillant's computers at a rate of terabits per second which is handled by graphics processors to report accurate data within seconds to air traffic control radar systems.

Aveillant has been financed by Cambridge Consultants, venture capitalist DFJ Esprit, and the U.K. wind industry's funding body, the Aviation Investment Fund. The company did not disclose how much it raised, but Oswald said it has been "millions" of dollars.