The Raytheon company has spent 17 years researching gallium-nitride for Patriot missile radar, but the technology's potential stretches much further than that.
At the recent Association of the U.S. Army Expo in Hunstville, AL, the company showed off a new radar for the Patriot missile system that uses gallium-nitride (GaN) to generate the radar waves. This solid-state radar system could be the key not only to better radar, but also to improving the Pentagon's crazy futuristic pain ray, mounting non-lethal weapons on airplanes, and, just maybe, building better microwaves.
The first radars were built around big vacuum tubes like the Magnetron in your microwave oven. Lately, though, military radar systems have started to use sold-state technology rather than a vacuum-tube. It might be compared to an LED that emits radio waves rather than light. Blocks of dozens of the solid-state emitters make up a flat active electronically-scanned array with no moving parts. The previous solid-state technology—gallium arsenide—was underpowered, but Raytheon has spent 17 years and some $200 million in research to develop the new GaN technology, which handles more power and is more efficient than gallium arsenide. It also produces less radio "noise," on its way to creating a more effective long-range radar beam.
This new radar for the Patriot is not Raytheon's first GaN product—the company makes a radar and jamming system for the Navy—but it shows the maturity of the technology. It also has a significant advantage over the old Patriot radar: It has two arrays back-to-back, giving it 360-degree coverage. This is useful if missiles or other targets (such as swarming drones) are coming in from all directions at the same time.
The new radar is a company-funded prototype, developed over the last two years in anticipation of a U.S. Army requirement for an upgrade to the Patriot. That requirement has now appeared in this year's budget for the Army, which calls for a "competitively selected Gallium Nitride (GaN) array antenna."