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Bathymetric Radar


The U.S. marine transportation system moves $10 trillion of cargo and 95 percent of our international trade (by weight) annually.  In an intricate dance, mariners use nautical charts with decades-old depth measurements, annual tidal data interpolated from distant stations, and rules-of-thumb to estimate the amount of safe water when navigating supertankers and mega-container ships.  Often ships have only inches of clearance from the seabed.  The uncertainties of this process put the safety of navigation and of our environment at risk from groundings and collisions.


A growing and credible body of scientific research has established that it is possible to measure water depths in real time using X-band radars.  This research validates that the dispersion relation from fluid mechanics directly relates wave speed to water depth in the marine environment.  Further research establishes that wave speeds can be measured using inexpensive and common marine X-band radar.  Innovation is now needed to apply and couple these 2 results to measure water depths in real time with a precision, accuracy, and resolution suitable for navigation use.


Bathymetric radar would revolutionize hydrographic surveying and marine navigation, ensuring that critical navigation lanes are monitored continuously rather than at discrete intervals.  It could eliminate groundings and delays caused by today’s uncertain bathymetry.  Further, it could permit NOAA to get more for the $100M it spends annually on surveying and charting and contribute to reducing our surveying backlog including the massive new requirements in the Arctic.


Project Goals: 

The short term goals of this project are:

·         Develop algorithms that can receive and process signals from commercial X-band radars and produce a continuous stream of accurate water depth measurements, over a large area, in real time;

·         Measure the precision, accuracy, and resolution in both location and depth of the resulting  depth measurements to establish any limitations to their use and their adequacy for navigation purposes; and

·         Determine the maximum and minimum depths to which the technique can measure.


The long term goals of this project are:

·         Produce robust versions of the algorithms, reduced to software that can be used by NOAA, port and harbor authorities, and other agencies to measure water depth in real time so as to be able to provide that information to ships for safe navigation.

·         Develop a complete commercial system incorporating the software and which is suitable for permanent deployment in ports and harbors to monitor water depth.

·         Generalize the algorithms and software so they can be included in any marine X-band radar, including those already aboard ship, to give them real time water depth measurement of their own with look-ahead capability.


Phase I Activities and Expected Deliverables:

·         Starting with existing scientific research results, produce algorithms to compute water depth and position from X-band radar signals.

·         Using the algorithms and a commercial X-band radar, experimentally measure the precision, accuracy, depth and position resolution, and maximum and minimum depths achieved.

·         Compare the achieved results with the existing national standards for hydrographic surveys and nautical charts.

·         Deliver the results as a professional-level report.


Phase II Activities and Expected Deliverables:

  • Based on the results of Phase I, develop software capable of being used in a production environment to measure water depths from a single brand/model of X-band radar.  Note:  This software may be run on remote computers.
  • Design and fabricate a prototype system incorporating the software and including the radar, interfaces, and processing capability.
  • Produce operator and maintenance manuals sufficient to operate and sustain the prototype system.  Include documentation of the algorithm(s) being used so that subsequent field use of the system can be thoroughly understood.
  • Perform field tests using the prototype demonstrating its ability to achieve or exceed the precision, accuracy, depth and position resolution, and maximum and minimum depths reported in Phase I.
  • Deliver a professional level report documenting the results of the field tests.
  • At NOAA’s option, deliver the prototype, documentation, and familiarization training sufficient for NOAA to perform more exhaustive field tests.
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