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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This work was supported by the ERC projects PHODIR (contract number 239640) and PREPARE (contract number 324629), and by the EU NEXPRESSO programme through the project INSIDE with Selex Sistemi Integrati S.p.A. (now Selex ES S.p.A.).

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  1. National Laboratory of Photonic Networks, Inter-university National Consortium for Telecommunications (CNIT), Via Moruzzi 1, 56124 Pisa, Italy

    • Paolo Ghelfi
    • , Francesco Laghezza
    • , Filippo Scotti
    • , Mirco Scaffardi
    • , Antonio Malacarne
    • , Emma Lazzeri
    •  & Antonella Bogoni
  2. TeCIP Institute, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Via Moruzzi 1, 56124 Pisa, Italy

    • Giovanni Serafino
    • , Sergio Pinna
    • , Daniel Onori
    • , Claudio Porzi
    •  & Valeria Vercesi
  3. National Laboratory of Radars and Surveillance Systems, Inter-university National Consortium for Telecommunications (CNIT), Galleria Gerace 18, 56126 Pisa, Italy

    • Amerigo Capria
    •  & Fabrizio Berizzi
  4. Department of Information Engineering, University of Pisa, Via Caruso 16, 56122 Pisa, Italy

    • Fabrizio Berizzi


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A.B. coordinated all the activities of the PHODIR project. A.B. and P.G. designed the architecture of the photonics-based transceiver and wrote the paper. F.L., A.C. and F.B. defined the radar parameters and designed the RF front end. F.L., F.S., S.P., G.S., E.L. and D.O. implemented the photonic subsystems. S.P. designed and developed the electronic controls of the machine that separates the samples into parallel streams and of the front panels of the radar demonstrator. F.S. assembled the demonstrator. F.L. implemented the digital processing tools. P.G., G.S., M.S., E.L. and A.B. analysed and discussed the results from the photonics-based transmitter. P.G., F.L., F.S., S.P., D.O., A.M. and A.B. analysed and discussed the results from the photonics-based receiver. F.L., F.S., S.P., G.S. and D.O. collected and processed the data of the field trial. P.G., F.L., F.S., G.S., S.P., D.O. and A.B. analysed and discussed the results of the field trial. C.P., V.V., P.G. and A.B. discussed the possible development of the photonics-based transceiver with integrated photonics techniques. P.G., G.S., F.L., F.S. and A.B. commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Antonella Bogoni.

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