Western team aims for search-rescue improvements

Western researchers are partnering with a Toronto technology start-up in developing a low-cost radar sensor that will greatly benefit traditionally costly search-and-rescue efforts.

Sightline Innovation Inc. will collaborate with Jagath Samarabandu and Xianbin Wang from Western’s Faculty of Engineering for their upcoming SAR2 – Search and Rescue Synthetic Aperture Radar – project. The project is funded for the initial six months with a $25,000 Engage Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

The aim is to develop an inexpensive radar sensor designed to address specific challenges affecting search-and-rescue efforts at sea. These sensors can be mounted on airplanes, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft systems (such as drones) and civilian and military aircraft.

The development of this new radar sensor will benefit civilians lost at sea, whether due to a plane crash, boat or shipwreck or any such incident in which search-and-rescue efforts would be needed. Being able to deploy these systems quickly and economically in these situations is the payoff, Samarabandu said, since having more systems means they are readily available.

“While (search-and-rescue systems) are not in constant demand, you must deploy them quickly in a search and rescue operation. They are more like fire engines in that regard,” he said.

In Canada alone, the three national Joint Rescue Coordination Centres responded to 9,280 search-and-rescue cases in 2009, an increase of 249 cases from 2008. Most cases occur during the summer months.

Both Sightline and Western researchers believe the project can build on Canada’s leadership in space-based search and rescue.

“The main idea is that radar systems are expensive …,” said Samarabandu, who specializes in machine learning and intelligence systems. “Because of this very high cost of entry, you can’t really build systems that you can deploy to many different locations, or to give to many individuals who can help in any rescue efforts.

“What we’re trying to do is use existing technology – one of the biggest advantages is the idea of doing a lot of processing using off-the-shelf computing hardware.”

Researchers can create a radar signal digitally, he continued, and manipulate and use low-cost transporting equipment to transit a signal without having communications radar-specific circuitry. This is the biggest innovation of the SAR2 research project.

Eventually, SAR2 could let users process, analyze and distribute real-time sensor information across secure mobile devices.

“The idea is that with this system, we can equip any small plane with this radar system, and have them cover a much wider range, in place of having very expensive equipment of which we have few in Canada,” Samarabandu said.

As things stand, researchers have a team working on developing a radar signal through software-defined instead of communications circuitry.

Samarabandu and Wang are doing experiments to test the feasibility of SAR2 and preparing a proposal for an NSERC Collaborative Research and Development grant to fund the project for another three years.