A major limitation with the radars used in autonomous cars is that they cannot discriminate the size and scope of objects faraway on the road.

However, Metawave, a California-based company, is creating a new analog-based radar that offers a solution.

In an exclusive interview with R&D Magazine, Maha Achour, the CEO of Metawave, explained that the new Metawave radars will give autonomous cars a better idea of their surroundings, within fractions of a second.

“Today’s radars are based on digital beamforming, so you have a number of antennas and you do all the processing in the digital space,” she said. “What you are trying to do is focus the beam in some location in the far field, ideally in the horizontal and vertical direction.”

The new radar—called WARLORD—enables a human-like interpretation of the surrounding world.

The analog radar will be faster than the current digital-based radars commonly used.

Achour said the technology is based on the technology that the military used for tracking missiles, but without the complexity, high power consumption and higher costs.

The radar mimics a phased array and is able to steer and shape a highly-directional, pencil beam in the horizontal and vertical direction, while also adjusting the beam from a wider field of view to a very narrow one—down to one degree.

“Metawave can shape to one degree beams, today’s DBF can shape the beam to be eight-to-ten degree beam width," Achour said. “On the steering part, in the far field, the digital beamforming has difficulty steering the beam beyond maybe six to seven degrees, so it has very a limited field of view and it can only steer in the horizontal direction.

“It cannot tell you if it is a car or a motorcycle, it cannot discriminate between different objects,” she added. “Electronically we are able to shape the beam down to a one-degree beam, be able to steer the beam plus or minus 50 degrees at 250 meters both in the horizontal and vertical direction, all while being able to steer it at microsecond speed.”

Instead of using the traditional phase shifters like military phased arrays, Metawave is using proprietary adaptive metamaterials for phase shifting—leveraging leading-edge optimization and control algorithms.

The radar also contains built-in synthetic aperture radar capability augmented by an artificial intelligence engine that leads to true 3D vision, object discrimination and predictive analytics.   

Currently, automotive radars based on digital beam forming use a broadband antenna to illuminate the scene omnidirectionally. The return signals from objects are picked up by the receivers and then processed digitally to form an image of the scene.

However, this method suffers from both poor signal-to-noise ratio and signal processing complexity, limiting the long-range operation of the radar, limiting their field of views and making them inherently slow.

This significantly hinders the radar’s ability to discriminate humans in a congested environment, like a child running through a parking lot.

Metawave will unveil their radar at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2018.

“We are going to be demonstrating our initial electronically steerable radar in January and from there we will continue to improve on the performance until we meet all the needs of the [original equipment manufacturer],” Achour said.