Tiny Radar Could Save Lives

Tiny Radar Could Save Lives

by / July 31, 1995
Aug 95

Jurisdiction: Livermore, Calif.; Monrovia, Calif.

Vendors: Amerigon, Allied Signal, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Contact: Stephen Wampler, senior public information officer, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 510/423-3107.

LIVERMORE, Calif. - Radar, a bane to many highway speeders, may soon become a driver's friend because of a new technology soon to hit the market. An engineer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has developed a short-range radar that is commanding the attention of companies who see numerous inexpensive applications, including a device that can promote safer driving.

The radar system can be mounted on a circuit board one-inch square, which is small enough to install in front and rear car bumpers. The devices, which detect motion and allow range settings, could give drivers an audible warning when changing lanes if another vehicle is in the blind spot and a collision would occur.

"If you set the range between 10 to 15 feet in a car, it will warn you when another car is within that range and an alarm will go off," said Tom McEwan, a Lawrence Livermore engineer who developed the technology. "This has the potential to warn people about objects in blind spots and help them avoid collisions while backing up."

The technology has been licensed to Monrovia, Calif.-based Amerigon Inc., which intends to build and market the devices by 1997. The devices are expected to cost about $10 apiece.

McEwan said other uses of the technology could include airbag activation just before collisions. This would be an improvement over today's airbags, which deploy on collision. Another possible use of the technology could be to activate airbags when the vehicle is hit in the side.

The Technology

The key to this use of radar technology is a receiver that times the return signal from an ultra wideband transmission of short electronic pulses lasting less than 50 trillionths of a second. This differs from conventional radar, which sends continuous microwaves and has a range of up to hundreds of miles. And because there is no carrier signal from the breakthrough technology, FCC frequency allocation is unnecessary.

The radar technology was originally used to detect particles generated through the fusion process. It uses low power and has low emission levels. The device can run for two years off a single AA battery, inventor McEwan said. Because the technology doesn't need frequency conversion or frequency domain signal processing, the cost of products created from it is expected to be low.

The pulses can penetrate walls, and devices can be set to detect movement up to a 20-foot sphere. "Aside from metal, the radar can pass through most other types of materials," said McEwan. "That means the radar can find gas lines under rubble in earthquakes. It can also pick up breathing, which means it could also be used to find people."

Because the technology can detect movement, products eventually developed could include devices which turn on lights when a person enters a room or burglar alarms. Because the devices can be as small as a square-inch, such a burglar alarm could be easily hidden behind wall hangings or put inside a vase.

New construction tools are also being developed, such as a stud detector, which could help both professionals and weekend handymen. Campbell, Calif.- based Zircon Corp. is licensing the technology with such applications in mind. Using one of these products, a person could ascertain what is below the surface of a wall or floor before tearing into it. The product is expected to cost about $100.

Devices may also be developed to find land mines or buried ordinance, which would be useful in countries recovering from wars, such as El Salvador or Cambodia. And, of course, armies could use it during conflicts to detect land mines .

Creating the Products

Lawrence Livermore, which has primarily been a nuclear weapons laboratory, is licensing the technology to companies which in turn create and market products Amerigon, which will market products for vehicles, signed a licensing agreement earlier this year and will pay royalties to the laboratory. Amerigon later signed an agreement with automotive equipment manufacturer Allied Signal Inc. to jointly create products using the technology. Negotiations have begun with some automobile manufacturers to include the anti-collision devices in new cars. The company reports that five firms, including domestic, European and Japanese auto makers have ordered prototypes of the devices.

Lawrence Livermore has sent licensing materials to 11 other companies, and all that remains to be done is finalizing the financial end, said Steve Wampler, the lab's spokesman. "We got about 2,000 phone calls in the past year from businesses," he said. "It's my belief that this is one of the hottest technologies on the market from federal labs."

"This technology is very definitely closer to market than our other research applications," said Bill Grant, a licensing specialist in the lab's technology transfer office. "It's essentially off-the-shelf technology."