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A radar altimeter, electronic altimeter, reflection altimeter, radio altimeter (RADALT), low range radio altimeter (LRRA) or simply RA measures altitude above the terrain presently beneath an aircraft or spacecraft. This type of altimeter provides the distance between the antenna and the ground directly below it, in contrast to a barometric altimeter which provides the distance above a defined datum, usually mean sea level.
- Main article: Radar signal processing
As the name implies, radar (radio detection and ranging) is the underpinning principle of the system. Radio waves are transmitted towards the ground and the time it takes them to be reflected back and return to the aircraft is timed. Because speed, distance and time are all related to each other, the distance from the surface providing the reflection can be calculated as the speed of the radio wave and therefore the time it takes to travel a distance are known quantities.
Alternatively, Frequency Modulated Continuous-wave radar can be used. The greater the frequency shift the further the distance traveled. This method can achieve much better accuracy than the aforementioned for the same outlay and radar altimeters that use frequency modulation are industry standard.
Radar altimeters normally work in the E band, Ka band, or, for more advanced sea-level measurement, S band. Radar altimeters also provide a reliable and accurate method of measuring height above water, when flying long sea-tracks. These are critical for use when operating to and from oil rigs.
In 1924, American engineer Lloyd Espenschied invented the radio altimeter. In 1938, Bell Labs put Espenschied's device in a form that was adaptable for aircraft use. In 1938 in co-operation with Bell Labs, United Air Lines fitted a radar type device to some of its airliners as a terrain avoidance device.
Civil aviation applications
Radar altimeters are frequently used by commercial aircraft for approach and landing, especially in low-visibility conditions (see instrument flight rules) and automatic landings, allowing the autopilot to know when to begin the flare maneuver. Radar altimeters give data to the autothrottle which is a part of the Flight Computer.
Radar altimeters generally only give readings up to 2,500 feet (760 m) above ground level (AGL). Frequently, the weather radar can be directed downwards to give a reading from a longer range, up to 60,000 feet (18,000 m) above ground level (AGL). As of 2012[update], almost all airliners are equipped with at least one and usually several radar altimeters, as they are essential to autoland capabilities. (As of 2012[update], determining height through other methods such as GPS is not permitted by regulations.) Older airliners from the 1960s (such as the British Aircraft Corporation BAC 1-11) and smaller airliners in the sub-50 seat class (such as the ATR 42 and BAe Jetstream series) are equipped with them.
Radar altimeters are an essential part in ground proximity warning systems (GPWS), warning the pilot if the aircraft is flying too low or descending too quickly. However, radar altimeters cannot see terrain directly ahead of the aircraft, only that below it; such functionality requires either knowledge of position and the terrain at that position or a forward looking terrain radar. Radar altimeter antennas have a fairly large main lobe of about 80° so that at bank angles up to about 40°, the radar detects the range from the aircraft to the ground (specifically to the nearest large reflecting object). This is because range is calculated based on the first signal return from each sampling period. It does not detect slant range until beyond about 40° of bank or pitch. This is not an issue for landing as pitch and roll do not normally exceed 20°.
The altitude specified by the device is not the indicated altitude of the standard barometric altimeter. Aviation is primarily referenced to true altitude - the height above Mean Sea Level (MSL). A radar altimeter measures absolute altitude - the height Above Ground Level (AGL). Absolute altitude is sometimes referred to as height because it is the height above the underlying terrain.
Military aviation applications
Radar altimeters are also used in military aircraft to fly quite low over the land and the sea to avoid radar detection and targeting by anti-aircraft guns or surface-to-air missiles. A related use of radar altimeter technology is terrain-following radar, which allows fighter bombers to fly at very low altitudes.
The F-111s of the Royal Australian Air Force and the U.S. Air Force have a forward-looking, terrain-following radar (TFR) system connected via digital computer to their automatic pilots. Beneath the nose radome, are two separate TFR antennae, each providing individual information to the dual-channel TFR system. In case of a failure in that system, the F-111s has a back-up radar altimeter system, also connected to the automatic pilot. Then, if the F-111 ever dips below the preset minimum altitude (for example, 15 meters) for any reason, its automatic pilot is commanded to put the F-111 into a 2G fly-up (a steep nose-up climb) to avoid crashing into terrain or water. Even in combat, the hazard of a collision is far greater than the danger of being detected by an enemy. Similar systems are used by F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft operated by Australia and the United States.
The Radio Altimeter first showed up in the German JU-87 Stuka Dive bomber which was equipped with one for automatic pullouts in the dive bomb run which usually consisted of a 80-90 degree dive. The Stuka pilot would set the Radio Altimeter to 750m which was hooked up the bomb release and automatic pull out. The Radio Altimeter would drop the bombs and pull the Stuka out of the dive at the set altitude to a level flight. This was invented because the pilots would blackout on the pull out usually for 2 to 5 seconds.