Radar systems today depend increasingly on phased-array antennas, an advanced design in which extensive grids of solid state components direct signal beams electronically. Phased array technology is replacing traditional electro- mechanical radar antennas – the familiar rotating dish that goes back many decades – because stationary solid state electronics are faster, more precise, and more reliable than moving mechanical parts. Yet phased array antennas, which require bulky supporting electronics, can be as large as older systems. To address this issue, a research team from the Georgia Institute of Technology has developed a novel device – the ultra-compact passive true time delay. This component could help reduce the size, complexity, power requirements and cost of phased array designs, and may have applications in other defense and communication areas as well.

The patent-pending ultra-compact device takes advantage of the difference in speed between light and sound, explained Ryan Westafer, a Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) research engineer who is leading the effort. The ultra-compact device uses acoustic technology to produce a type of signal delay that’s essential to phased-array performance; existing phased-array antennas use cumbersome electrical technology to create this type of signal delay.

“Most true time delay equipment currently uses long, meandering electromagnetic delay lines – comparable to coaxial cable – that take up a lot of space,” Westafer said. “In addition, there are some time delay designs that utilize photonic technology, but they currently have size and functionality drawbacks as well.”

The ultra-compact delay device uses acoustic delay lines that are embedded entirely within thin film materials. The component can be made thousands of times smaller than an electrical delay-line design, Westafer said, and it can be readily integrated on top of semiconductor substrates commonly used in radar systems. In a phased array radar system, true time delays are necessary to assure proper performance of the many signal beam producing elements that make up the array. As the elements scan back and forth electronically at extremely high speeds, their timing requires extremely fine coordination.

“The individual antenna elements of a phased array appear to scan together, but in fact each element’s signal has to leave up to a few nanoseconds later than its neighbor or the steered beam will be spoiled,” explained Kyle Davis, a GTRI research engineer who is a team member. “These delays need to march down each element in the array in succession for a steered beam to be produced. Without correct time delays, the signals will be degraded by a periodic interference pattern and the location of the target will be unclear.”

Traditional phased array systems use one foot of electrical delay line for each nanosecond of delay. By contrast, the Georgia Tech team’s time-delay design consists of a thin-film acoustic component that’s a mere 40 microns square. The tiny device can be readily integrated into the silicon substrate of a radar component, yet it provides the same delay as many feet of cable. This size reduction is possible because of a simple fact of physics – sound traveling through the air moves about 100,000 times more slowly than light. As a result, when an electromagnetic wave such as a radar signal becomes an acoustic wave, it slows down dramatically. In the case of the ultra-compact passive true time delay component, the acoustic area of the component furnishes a multi-nanosecond delay in the space of a few microns.