A proposed laser-based instrument would quickly measure the approximate distance and approximate direction to the closest target within its field of view. The instrument would not contain any moving parts and its mode of operation would not entail scanning over of its field of view. Typically, the instrument would be used to locate a target at a distance on the order of meters to kilometers. The instrument would be best suited for use in an uncluttered setting in which the target is the only or, at worst, the closest object in the vicinity; for example, it could be used aboard an aircraft to detect and track another aircraft flying nearby.
The proposed instrument would include a conventional time-of-flight or echo- phase-shift laser range finder, but unlike most other range finders, this one would not generate a narrow cylindrical laser beam; instead, it would generate a conical laser beam spanning the field of view (see figure). The instrument would also include a quadrant detector, optics to focus the light returning from the target onto the quadrant detector, and circuitry to synchronize the acquisition of the quadrant-detector output with the arrival of laser light returning from the nearest target. A quadrant detector constantly gathers information from the entire field of view, without scanning; its output is a direct measure of the position of the target-return light spot on the focal plane and is thus a measure of the direction to the target.
The instrument should be able to operate at a repetition rate high enough to enable it to track a rapidly moving target. Of course, a target that is not sufficiently reflective could not be located by this instrument. Preferably, retroreflectors should be attached to the target to make it sufficiently reflective.
This work was done by Thomas C. Bryan, Richard T. Howard, and Michael L. Book of Marshall Space Flight Center. MFS-31705.