More Flexible, More Powerful: Selex, a unit of Italy's Finmeccanica, is developing its first radar — called Unimast — using gallium nitride, which improves radar performance. (Selex ES)
ROME — With a flurry of new development plans, European firms and governments are playing catch-up to the US in the race to build military radars with gallium nitride, the next-generation semi-conductor material that could boost radar power five fold.
Gallium nitride, also known as GaN, could usher in a quantum leap in radar technology, promising smaller, more flexible, more powerful radars than today’s crop, which use semi-conductors made with gallium arsenide.
Now, after backing from the US government, US firms such as Raytheon and Northrop Grumman are bringing products to the market, putting them ahead of European firms that remain — by one estimate — two to three years behind and are seeking to make up lost ground following the launch of collaborative programs by the European Union’s European Defense Agency (EDA).
“GaN is bringing about a revolution in radar,” said Maurizio Cicolani, director of electronics engineering at Selex ES, a unit of Italy’s Finmeccanica.
“It helps simplify system architecture, reducing size and weight and generate new ideas,” he added. “The switch to this material will come very soon.”
Selex, which has spent over €40 million (US $54 million) on GaN research, partially funded by the Italian Defense Ministry, now has its own foundry in Rome turning out GaN components.
The firm is developing its first GaN radar — a multi-function naval radar that will be used in its newly launched Unimast and could be operational in 2018.
The Unimast, which debuted at London’s DSEi show this month, will integrate radar, electro-optics, communications, identification friend or foe, and electronic warfare capabilities with a single management system without problems of conflicting signals.
The radar will have four fixed faces and mark a step up from the revolving, multi-functional radar active being installed on Italy’s new multi-mission FREMM frigates.
In Germany, EADS Cassidian is planning to use GaN in radar, electronic warfare and communications.
“We are developing a multi-band demonstrator which offers radar, [synthetic aperture radar, electronic support measures, electronic countermeasures] and communications functions with only one front end,” said Heinz-Peter Feldle, executive expert at EADS Cassidian. The demonstrator, he added, is possible only with GaN.
“Advantages include a more than five-fold increase of RF power on the same chip size and the ability to use supply voltages of 40-60 volts against 8-10 volts for gallium arsenide, which results in a significant reduction of DC current, which means less weight of cabling and less electromagnetic interference,” he said.
“GaN is also a radiation-hardened technology so you can use devices on satellites and high altitude platforms where space radiation can cause problems,” he said.
Feldle said there is also discussion within the EU about the toxicity of gallium arsenide. “Hence the talk of GaN as a replacement.”
Cassidian is co-owner with Thales of the GaN foundry UMS, based in France and Germany.
A Thales spokeswoman called GaN a “promising new technology,” adding, “further down the road, miniaturized GaN components, such as ‘intelligent skins,’ could be used to develop conformal antennas that would replace nose-mounted radars completely and perform detection, jamming and communication functions at the same time.”
Developed in the 1980s for use in LED displays, GaN is used in Blu-ray technology and Sony’s Playstation, making it an example of high-tech migrating from civil to defense labs. It is also used in the development of power control systems for electric cars.
Selex’s Cicolani said that while GaN could boost the power of active, electronically scanned array radars, increase reliability and efficiency and cut down on heat generation, “It also provides wider bandwidth and greater flexibility on timing and the length of pulses, which is key for military multi-function radars.”
He added that Selex is focusing on GaN applications in naval radar, with one aim being the increase in detection capability of ballistic missiles “for naval C-band radars we can boost [anti-ballistic-missile] performance and area of coverage,” he said.
At Cassidian, Feldle said airborne radar is also included in GaN research. “GaN will be the enabler for our next-generation naval and ground radars, as well as airborne, where the low heat resistance of GaN devices will result in a significant improvement in thermal sensor management and reliability,” he said.
True to its mission of spurring joint European defense work, the European Defense Agency has launched three GaN programs. The first, called Korrigan, ran to 2009, while the second, Manga, is still running. The former used €50 million in funding from the MoDs of France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain the UK and Sweden, while the latter has used €16 million in funding from France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and the UK.
“Manga will finish next year and is aimed at getting GaN layers on a wafer so you have the ability to produce microelectronic circuits,” said Wolfgang Scheidler, an EDA official. “With Manga, we are going for the real production of GaN microelectronic circuits.”
A third program launched last year aims to create GaN transmit/receive modules for radar.
“This is a high priority for EDA, and is closely linked to our work on critical defense technology and European technological non-dependence,” Scheidler said.
“Europe is somewhat behind US firms, which capitalized on large budgets, and has spent less than 10 percent of what the US has spent,” Feldle said. “But it is necessary to have independent European source and capabilities.” That, he added, would avoid Europe getting tied up by International Traffic in Arms Regulations if it tried to purchase US components.
Selex’s Cicolini said he believed the cooperation between European firms has slowed since the first EDA program was launched, and said Europe is still two to three years behind the US. Feldle appeared more optimistic.
“What has now happened, and this is not very common, is that European industry has worked together, through European defense ministries and the EDA, to reach a certain technological level, before firms have gone off to develop their own sensor programs,” he said.