Radar survey team uses new innovation for faster surveys

  • Published
  • By Cynthia Griggs
  • 75th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The Radar Survey section of the 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, recently obtained new technology that revolutionizes how they survey terrain and man-made features.

That new technology is a 3-D terrestrial laser scanner called the Riegl VZ-2000i.

As the nation’s only long-range radar evaluation unit, the 84th RADES mission is to monitor, evaluate and optimize long-range radars located across the United States, ensuring perimeter security of the borders and within the country.

The mission of the squadron’s survey section is to survey a radar site’s land by identifying the obstructions that could degrade the radar’s performance.

“These obstructions around the site, that could be anything from trees to man-made objects, will impact a radar’s performance,” said flight supervisor Jason Kaas.

Before the laser scanner, the squadron surveyed using a total station, which is an instrument using electromagnetic distance measurement and electronic theodolite to measure horizontal and vertical angles as well as sloping distance of the object.

With the measurements from the total station, the team would then physically trace objects by hand into their survey. Kass said it would take about 8 hours to complete the 360-degree survey around the radar.

With the terrestrial laser scanner, a laser shoots out at a thousand times a second. It can scan 360 degrees at each position two to four kilometers away and only takes 40 seconds to finish. Each positional scan is later molded together with software to create the 3-D model of the radar site.  

“We have been blown away by the speed and accuracy of it,” said Tech. Sgt. Adam Borjon, radar site evaluator. “It’s a game changer.”

On one of team’s first test scans around the base, what used to take the Airmen 8 hours, using the scanner cut that time down to 3 hours. The extra 5 hours brings far-reaching benefits.

While the team surveys a radar site from the tower deck, the entire system must be turned off because the radar emits life-threatening energy waves at close proximity. Cutting down survey time means less time the radar is down. The faster it can get back online means safer air space, said Borjon.

“The data this provides us takes that level of accuracy we were doing and magnifies it,” said Kaas. “It’s going to allow the warfighter and the civilians in the sky feel a little safer at night.”

The scanner also has a built-in weather station that records temperature and barometric pressure. Kaas said this is because atmospheric conditions, in addition to the terrain, can affect the radar systems. Temperature and moisture can sometimes cause bending in the radar waves that can either reduce or extend radar range.

Kaas said if there’s ever an issue with the radar down the road, the team can review the weather data they captured with the scanner and use that data to help troubleshoot performance.

In addition, a digital camera is linked to the scanner, capturing digital photos that are then overlaid with an algorithm with the scanner’s 3-D point cloud data, blending them together, explained Staff Sgt. Austin Marshall, radar site evaluator.

 “We used to manually take site photos to justify our surveys. With the camera linked and the photos overlaid, it helps reinforce that an obstruction is in the right spot,” Marshall continued.

Kaas said, “You then actually get what looks like a photo, but is also factual data that has properties in the metadata giving you latitude, longitude, and elevation at the time of the scan.”

The survey team consists of five Air Force civil engineers on special duty to the radar squadron. Borjon said he can see the scanners being eventually used Air Force wide in the engineer career field, such as using them for aircraft mishap response. 

“Getting the most accurate picture in a timely manner as engineers is one of our core taskings,” said Borjon.

The squadron received funding for two scanners from the Air Combat Command and according to Borjon, the leadership was so impressed with the initial results, ACC recently awarded another innovation fund to purchase an additional kit.

Though it is expensive technology, it will also save the Air Force money. The less time the team has to be out in the field surveying means less money is spent for each trip.

With the old school method, Kaas said two surveyors can spend up to two weeks each trip surveying the radar site. Overall, they average 40-50 trips a year, he said.

“If we can help the team come home a day earlier, we can be gone 30 days less a year, that’s a huge cost savings and also huge for their families,” Kaas said. “Thirty more days you can be at home, that’s priceless.”

Editor's note: This story has been corrected June 13, 2019 to delete the quote the squadron was the first to use laser scanning technology in the Department of Defense.