Vision for the Navy's future
A new generation of engineers advances naval radar technologies
There’s a daily joke session. There’s Thai food. A junior engineer stands up in the wide-open room to throw a question at the entire team. Equation-filled white boards surround the room.
This is how technology takes leaps into the future; lively scenes like this one, unfolding at a Raytheon campus outside Boston, where engineers are on a critical mission: creating code for naval ships around the world.
“I could go code for Amazon, but when I see something I’m developing at Raytheon work with the radar in real time or a live mission execute successfully, there is an overwhelming sense of satisfaction,” said Brooke Mohlenhoff, an engineering software development lead.
Mohlenhoff works in an open work space her team calls a scrum area. In the scrum, senior engineers and radar experts share their perspective with the newer generation.
It’s inspiring and motivating, “especially when a Navy captain comes into our scrum area and speaks to us about the 'why' behind our work, telling us the radar on ships is keeping people safe,” Mohlenhoff said.
Advanced engineering skills and new development techniques help expedite development of new radars for the U.S. Navy; more flexible, more powerful and easier to maintain.
“We’ve built our software in an open architecture, so we can leverage everything that’s going on in the commercial marketplace. We have to have a platform engineers are used to working on,” said Scott Spence, director of Naval Radar Systems. An electrical engineer with a master’s degree from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Spence now leads the teams responsible for the AN/SPY-6(V) family of radars.
He works closely with naval radar teams as they drive the coming decades of radar development, including the creation of apps to work on all platforms.
Seeing through the clutter
The maritime environment may be the most challenging arena in which radars work. Engineers use every tech available to better adapt radar equipment to the low horizon and rolling waves of the sea. The engineers working on the SPY-6 radar portfolio, for example, have employed a semiconductor substance called gallium nitride, or GaN, to build their transmitters; GaN is the foundation of more powerful circuits.
“GaN is a hard, glass-like substance with a crystalline structure that can move electrons a thousand times faster than the silicon traditionally used in computer chips,” explained Forbes magazine in a column that detailed Raytheon's decades-long, multi-million dollar investment in the development of GaN technology.
The transmitter is also built with open software architecture and a modular hardware design that allows the radars to be customized for a wide range of ship sizes and missions, from aircraft carriers to small, unmanned platforms.
And the engineers employ Agile engineering techniques, a collaborative approach that speeds up cycle times into bursts, or sprints, to help find issues early and mature systems more rapidly.
Among the challenges of building a sea-borne radar, Spence said, are the amount of clutter in the environment and the need to spot low-flying threats.
“Clutter can be anything from active countermeasures to confuse a radar," he said, to “just the sea itself, churning water that creates a moment of distortion.”
The radar has to be able to discriminate between the ocean's activity and threats such as a cruise missile coming in.
The next wave
SPY-6(V)1, the radar destined for the U.S. Navy's DDG 51 Flight III destroyers, is in production and below-deck deliveries have begun. SPY-6(V)2, the Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar bound for aircraft carriers and amphibious warships, is being put through its paces at the test facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, before entering low-rate, initial production this fall.
Engineers are also looking at ways to incorporate this technology into unmanned platforms, and network it all together, according to Spence.
He believes this work is cut out for engineers who have recently entered the field.
“You will be able to work on the most cutting-edge radar in production today,” he said. “You are working on the world’s most advanced sensing technology. That’s all they need to know.”