Is it a plane? A wind turbine? New 3D radar tech can tell

Look, up in the sky: it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a … wind turbine.

If comic-book air-traffic controllers never had trouble distinguishing Superman from passing planes, the same hasn’t held true in real life. In fact, military and air-safety concerns over potential confusion between planes and wind turbines has proved to be a major hurdle to the development of wind energy.

In the UK alone, nearly two-thirds of all wind-farm applications — a full 6.5 gigawatts’ worth — are being delayed because of such concerns, according to product development specialist Cambridge Consultants. But an innovative new technology could soon change all that.

A 3D holographic radar system can identify and track even small planes flying over a farm full of large, spinning wind turbines, according to Cambridge Consultants, which developed the technology and is spinning out a new company called Aveillant to market the product. The system is billed as being able to provide “a level of accuracy that will assure safe separation of aircraft and turbine in the most demanding airspace.”

“The unique radar offering is a result of our extensive work with aviation and wind energy stakeholders to create a technical solution which fully meets their requirements,” said Ray Edgson, ventures director at Cambridge Consultants.

The company worked with everyone from wind-farm developers and airport operators to Britain’s Ministry of Defense and the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to develop the new radar technology. It says the result is a system that not only meets both civil and defense aviation requirements, but will be affordable even for smaller wind farms.

Currently, wind turbines in motion can mimic aircraft on an air traffic controller’s radar screen. Other fixes have been tried, but they often require a compromise in either radar coverage, sensitivity or accuracy. Aveillant’s proprietary 3D holographic radar, however, has been shown in tests to resolve those issues. Small-scale trials in 2009 led the Ministry of Defense to back the technology in a proposal to DECC’s Aviation Advisory panel. A year later, the government’s Aviation Management Board chose the technology as its leading radar in-fill solution.

Aveillant will receive startup financing through a consortium that includes Cambridge Consultants, venture capital firm DFJ Esprit the Aviation Investment Fund Company, a funding body set up by the wind industry to address aviation concerns related to wind energy development.

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