The next generation of radar (radio detection and ranging) systems needs to be based on software-defined radio to adapt to variable environments, with higher carrier frequencies for smaller antennas and broadened bandwidth for increased resolution1, 2, 3, 4. Today’s digital microwave components (synthesizers and analogue-to-digital converters) suffer from limited bandwidth with high noise at increasing frequencies5, 6, 7, so that fully digital radar systems can work up to only a few gigahertz, and noisy analogue up- and downconversions are necessary for higher frequencies. In contrast, photonics provide high precision and ultrawide bandwidth8, 9, allowing both the flexible generation of extremely stable radio-frequency signals with arbitrary waveforms up to millimetre waves10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, and the detection of such signals and their precise direct digitization without downconversion23, 24, 25, 26. Until now, the photonics-based generation and detection of radio-frequency signals have been studied separately and have not been tested in a radar system. Here we present the development and the field trial results of a fully photonics-based coherent radar demonstrator carried out within the project PHODIR27. The proposed architecture exploits a single pulsed laser for generating tunable radar signals and receiving their echoes, avoiding radio-frequency up- and downconversion and guaranteeing both the software-defined approach and high resolution. Its performance exceeds state-of-the-art electronics at carrier frequencies above two gigahertz, and the detection of non-cooperating aeroplanes confirms the effectiveness and expected precision of the system.
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