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Chapter 1: The Breadth and Depth of DSP

Echo Location

A common method of obtaining information about a remote object is to bounce a wave off of it. For example, radar operates by transmitting pulses of radio waves, and examining the received signal for echoes from aircraft. In sonar, sound waves are transmitted through the water to detect submarines and other submerged objects. Geophysicists have long probed the earth by setting off explosions and listening for the echoes from deeply buried layers of rock. While these applications have a common thread, each has its own specific problems and needs. Digital Signal Processing has produced revolutionary changes in all three areas.

Radar is an acronym for RAdio Detection And Ranging. In the simplest radar system, a radio transmitter produces a pulse of radio frequency energy a few microseconds long. This pulse is fed into a highly directional antenna, where the resulting radio wave propagates away at the speed of light. Aircraft in the path of this wave will reflect a small portion of the energy back toward a receiving antenna, situated near the transmission site. The distance to the object is calculated from the elapsed time between the transmitted pulse and the received echo. The direction to the object is found more simply; you known where you pointed the directional antenna when the echo was received.

The operating range of a radar system is determined by two parameters: how much energy is in the initial pulse, and the noise level of the radio receiver. Unfortunately, increasing the energy in the pulse usually requires making the pulse longer. In turn, the longer pulse reduces the accuracy and precision of the elapsed time measurement. This results in a conflict between two important parameters: the ability to detect objects at long range, and the ability to accurately determine an object's distance.

DSP has revolutionized radar in three areas, all of which relate to this basic problem. First, DSP can compress the pulse after it is received, providing better distance determination without reducing the operating range. Second, DSP can filter the received signal to decrease the noise. This increases the range, without degrading the distance determination. Third, DSP enables the rapid selection and generation of different pulse shapes and lengths. Among other things, this allows the pulse to be optimized for a particular detection problem. Now the impressive part: much of this is done at a sampling rate comparable to the radio frequency used, at high as several hundred megahertz! When it comes to radar, DSP is as much about high-speed hardware design as it is about algorithms.

Sonar is an acronym for SOund NAvigation and Ranging. It is divided into two categories, active and passive. In active sonar, sound pulses between 2 kHz and 40 kHz are transmitted into the water, and the resulting echoes detected and analyzed. Uses of active sonar include: detection & localization of undersea bodies, navigation, communication, and mapping the sea floor. A maximum operating range of 10 to 100 kilometers is typical. In comparison, passive sonar simply listens to underwater sounds, which includes: natural turbulence, marine life, and mechanical sounds from submarines and surface vessels. Since passive sonar emits no energy, it is ideal for covert operations. You want to detect the other guy, without him detecting you. The most important application of passive sonar is in military surveillance systems that detect and track submarines. Passive sonar typically uses lower frequencies than active sonar because they propagate through the water with less absorption. Detection ranges can be thousands of kilometers.

DSP has revolutionized sonar in many of the same areas as radar: pulse generation, pulse compression, and filtering of detected signals. In one view, sonar is simpler than radar because of the lower frequencies involved. In another view, sonar is more difficult than radar because the environment is much less uniform and stable. Sonar systems usually employ extensive arrays of transmitting and receiving elements, rather than just a single channel. By properly controlling and mixing the signals in these many elements, the sonar system can steer the emitted pulse to the desired location and determine the direction that echoes are received from. To handle these multiple channels, sonar systems require the same massive DSP computing power as radar.

Reflection seismology
As early as the 1920s, geophysicists discovered that the structure of the earth's crust could be probed with sound. Prospectors could set off an explosion and record the echoes from boundary layers more than ten kilometers below the surface. These echo seismograms were interpreted by the raw eye to map the subsurface structure. The reflection seismic method rapidly became the primary method for locating petroleum and mineral deposits, and remains so today.

In the ideal case, a sound pulse sent into the ground produces a single echo for each boundary layer the pulse passes through. Unfortunately, the situation is not usually this simple. Each echo returning to the surface must pass through all the other boundary layers above where it originated. This can result in the echo bouncing between layers, giving rise to echoes of echoes being detected at the surface. These secondary echoes can make the detected signal very complicated and difficult to interpret. Digital Signal Processing has been widely used since the 1960s to isolate the primary from the secondary echoes in reflection seismograms. How did the early geophysicists manage without DSP? The answer is simple: they looked in easy places, where multiple reflections were minimized. DSP allows oil to be found in difficult locations, such as under the ocean.

Next Section: Image Processing