Solid-State Comes on Strong
What you should know about recent radar product introductions, and how they fit into your helm now.
According to Ian Fleming’s title character in the James Bond novel Goldfinger: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” Evil genius aside, the man had a point. That’s what came to mind as three of the four major electronics manufacturers rolled out their twists on solid-state radar technology in the first six weeks of this year. Raymarine began the year of solid-state radar at the New York boat show, followed by Furuno and Garmin at Miami in February. All introduced solid-state radars radically different from the pervasive magnetron-driven variety, and touted numerous benefits that will check the boxes for many boaters’ needs.
The R&D departments of these various companies have been working to pack these new systems with enhanced functionality and improved target resolution while using less power and emitting less possibly dangerous microwave emissions around your boat. Not only that but these new units are said to work better at short range than magnetron radar systems, power up nearly instantly, and, in two cases, can auto-highlight target movement onscreen, seemingly without waiting for the next sweep of the antenna. Just to clariy, “solid-state” means silicon-driven pulses, not “zero moving parts” as did the “solid state” with which we all grew up.
But here’s what’s really new: Furuno, for starters, has the DRS4DNXT ($2,600), an X-band pulse-compression radar that works with TZ Touch and TZT2 displays. “Solid-state is different technology,” says Eric Kunz, product manager for Furuno. “Where a magnetron radar uses a short, powerful pulse, it’s only transmitting 0.3 percent of the time. Solid-state transmits at lower power but it uses up to 10 percent of the duty cycle.” Furuno is excited about the fast-tracking system. “Picture 500 police radars,” Kunz says. “All pointing outward radially.” He has a good point since the system uses Doppler technology (you know, as in the Doppler effect, when the sound of an approaching car is pitched higher than when it passes and recedes into the distance? It works with radar too). The system tracks the speed and direction of targets. The company has added a target analyzer function that paints boat targets red if they are going 3 knots or more and present a collision threat to you (less than three knots, they stay green). The system has the discerning eye many boaters have been after for a while: It can indicate rain, of course, but it can paint it blue and allow the user to see targets within the rain.
Then there’s Raymarine with its Quantum Q24C ($1,599.99), whose underlying pulse compression is similar to most competitors, though Ray was smart enough to grab the perfectly apt “CHIRP” as part of the moniker. The system draws just 17 watts of power when in use (2 watts in sleep mode), and is a simple retrofit because it only needs to be wired for power. The radar sends data to a compatible multifunction display over Wi-Fi, a real harbinger of things to come in terms of rigging. (Though Quantum also offers a more traditional and just Ethernet cable data option.)
“One of the big differentiations for Quantum is the introduction of wireless connectivity on the boats,” says Adam Murphy, global product manager for sonar and radar for Raymarine. “This is the first radar that’s out there on the market that you can just run a power cable to, and it can network to your entire system wirelessly through the Wi-Fi router that’s built into the multifunction display. Think about the future potential of having your whole boat wireless—how much easier is it going to be to install and upgrade electronics down the road.” Considering what wireless connectivity has done for software upgrades, radar is a good place to start due to rigging challenges.
Finally, there’s Garmin, which rolled out its GMR Fantom series, touted as offering 40 watts of silicon power—a lot, even when you recall 4-, 6-, and more kilowatt sets—in both 4- and 6-foot open-array systems (starting at $6,999.99). This solid-state radar uses pulse compression to focus energy on targets and improve resolution on the display, while optimizing technology that uses the Doppler effect to capitalize on relative motion of targets. Garmin notes that the series has an effective range from 20 feet to 70 miles.
“Fantom is pulse-expansion radar, too, so it actually takes a small target and expands it a little bit so you can see a smaller target better,” says David Dunn, senior manager of sales and marketing for Garmin. “The Fantom also uses CHIRP technology similar to what we’re seeing in sonar—we’re definitely getting into functions the magnetron radars just can’t do. What’s cool with the Fantom is you can actually see the target move on the screen—on magnetron radar you have to see the sweep come around in order to see the target motion. If the target is moving towards you, it turns red to indicate a possible collision threat, which takes some of the guesswork out of it for the user.”
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Simrad and the other Navico brands, Lowrance and B&G, have offered solid-state radar for more than seven years in the form of Broadband Radar. The system has gone through a few generations of evolution with added features and improved functionality along the way. As a follow-up last year the company introduced another evolution to its solid-state radar product line. Known as Halo, the system is a powerful open-array solution that brought the company’s development of the technology to the next level (See our full coverage of those systems here and here).
But what, generally speaking, is going on with all this new technology that sets it apart? Well for one thing, the power draw is way down. “A perfect example of the difference is that the existing radars draw a lot of power,” says Murphy. “They utilize short 4-kilowatt bursts so their draw is substantially stronger than a typical solid-state radar. [A magnetron radar] pulls something to the tune of 60 watts, which is a good amount of power on a battery-based system. Solid-state radar is able to run on a quarter of that power so you could run four times as long at the same operating level.” While that’s a consideration for boats that run on a battery system much of the time, such as sailboats, smart power usage is something all boaters should consider.
Also, there’s no more waiting for warmup time. “The magnetron radars need to warm up and so this typically is a 60- to 90-second cycle where they’re getting up to speed to produce a microwave emission,” Murphy says. “So with solid-state technology it’s basically one to two seconds and it’s ready to fire. It’s just getting the circuitry in the system software up and running. Imagine you’re out there and some heavy fog rolls in. You don’t want to wait a minute and a half for a radar to warm up while you’re bobbing on the ocean hoping not to run into anything.”
And while we’re on the subject of software, boaters with relatively new helm systems who get software updates should realize that these radar systems offer another powerful sensor to add to the repertoire that creative developers build features upon. “We are always looking at ways to leverage new technology in order to develop new products and improve existing ones,” Dunn says. “We often add features after a product is introduced because we are committed to continually improving our products. If it’s going to take us two years to build the product we want, we have to ask ourselves where we expect the market to be in two years.”
All the manufacturers told me that there’s nothing at all wrong with their magnetron radars and in fact they see solid-state as a complement to those systems rather than a replacement. Simrad, seven years into selling solid-state, still produces high-definition magnetron radars.
In fact developers are saying that many boaters will want both radars on board. “We expect some of the large sportfishing or cruising boats to have both,” says Dunn. “Our Fantom radars are now available, and many of the boats that are being ordered with it are going with the 25-kilowatt magnetron radar as well.” Until the next leap in technology, a combination of magnetron and solid-state sounds like the best of both worlds.
This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.