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Saab taking radar to new heights in world-leading microwave cluster

With a view over the North Sea, Saab Surveillance has developed a new generation of radar products. Reaching these heights hasn’t happened by chance, nor that Gothenburg and Western Sweden have a world-leading cluster in antenna and microwave technology. It is the spirit of collaboration in the region that produces world-class technology according to Saab business area manager Anders Carp.

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“This is why radar is so good,” says Fredrik Wising, director of research and development at Saab's Surveillance business area, pointing towards the grey skies towering outside the windows on the top floor of Saab's building in Kallebäck Technology Park. 

“On a clear day, you can see the sea from here,” says colleague Ann Kullberg, head of communications at Surveillance.

Surveillance is one of six Saab business areas and has more than 4000 employees, with 1300 working in Gothenburg, 1300 in Stockholm, some in Luleå and the rest abroad. Solutions are provided in security, surveillance and decision support for detecting and protecting against various types of threats. Two of Surveillance’s business units are in Gothenburg: Airborne Surveillance Systems, with the airborne surveillance system GlobalEye as the main product; and Surface Radar Solutions, with the Giraffe radar family among its products.

That Saab's Gothenburg facility was built on one of the city’s highest hills is no coincidence.

“We’re up here so that we can take measurements and verify our radar products from the roof,” says Fredrik Wising. “We can test over land, the sea and in the air. We can also test nose radar towards Landvetter Airport, where there are always plenty of aircraft coming in for landings.”

It began back in 1956

The step is far from Sweden's first radar built during World War II – with its large antenna and a slowly rotating, large tube transmitter – to today's antenna systems with a multitude of interacting antenna element, electronics and software. And it is all closely associated with Gothenburg, home to one of the world's leading clusters in antenna and microwave technology. It began back in 1956 when Ericsson established development operations for radar technology here at what was then called Ericsson Microwave Systems.

“This was in part because of the skilled engineers at the Chalmers Institute of Technology, along with the institute’s academic programme for electrical engineers,” says Fredrik Wising. “But there were also researchers here studying microwave radiation, outer space and associated fields. In combination with the desire to locate in the western part of the country, this made Gothenburg the logical choice.”

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in the 1990s, the basis of Sweden's defence and security policy went from invasion defence as the principle objective at the beginning of the 2000s, to participation in international missions. This entailed strongly decreased priority for development projects and reduced funding for research and technological development. Ericsson Microwave Systems, which had many development contracts financed by the state over the years, was forced to manage on its own.

“Appropriations from the Swedish government diminished after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” says Fredrik Wising. “Research continued for a number of years into the new century before we were left to ourselves, you could say, when we were forced to find out what the customers needed.”

Anders Carp

Important with Swedish ownership

in 2006, Ericsson Microwave Systems was sold to Saab, which through the acquisition gained a world-leading position in radar and sensor technology to add to their existing product portfolio in areas such as defence and aviation.Saab and Ericsson Microwave Systems had worked closely for many years, and Ericsson Microwave Systems supplied the radar for the JAS Gripen aircraft and the airborne surveillance system Erieye.

“It was a stroke of luck that Ericsson decided to sell the business to Saab,” says Anders Carp, business area manager for Surveillance since January 2017. “It’s important that the technology remains under Swedish ownership and I believe that the advances made in the field, not the least here at this site during the past 8 to 10 years, would never have been otherwise achieved.”

Anders Carp – joining the discussion on the eight floor, with a view directly into the overcast skies – has worked with many different projects since 2001. These include the projects for the Gripen, network-based defence and manned aircraft. He has also served as the regional manager for the Middle East. He now splits his time evenly between Surveillance's two largest facilities, in Järfälla and Gothenburg.

"But don’t write that I live in Stockholm," he says with a smile.

Everything is based on radar

Today there is an entire cluster of companies in Gothenburg working with microwave technology: Saab, Ericsson RUAG Space, Emerson and a number of small companies. Include the companies in the automotive industry working with microwave technology, plus all the research at Chalmers, and this all adds up to expertise in the field that is unique, with all heavily invested in radar.

“We know each other, we understand each other,” says Anders Carp. “In contexts where, for example, we’ll be discussing something with the government, we’re stronger when several companies are working together. This is the most advantageous benefit of the cluster.”

“For Surveillance, it’s also very important to work across organisational borders with Ericsson, RUAG, Volvo and Chalmers,” says Fredrik Wising. “The national programmes we have in Sweden's innovation authority Vinnova are very powerful, where interests and abilities are assembled from many quarters and utilised in research programs where ideas flow between the industries.”

Coupling to Chalmers is essential

The cluster also means that many companies are looking for people with the same skills.

“In the short term, it can be a disadvantage when everyone else wants microwave engineers too, because the job market is so competitive,” says Anders Carp. “But you have to see it from more of a long-term perspective. It’s actually good that that so many companies can accommodate people with expertise in microwave technology. If people leave a company, it’s better that they stay in the area and work with similar applications than move away. I’m convinced that it’s the spirit of collaboration in the region that produces the world-class technology.”

For Saab Surveillance, the coupling to Chalmers is essential.

“We'd never have been here if we haven't had Chalmers nearby,” says Anders Carp. “Our products would not be as good if we only packaged what was already on the market. We need to be involved from the start and look at material choices very early. What we have researched and developed, and then tested in very extreme environments, other companies subsequently benefit from in other contexts.”

An example of what the successful collaboration with Chalmers has meant is the basic research in the semiconductor material gallium nitride, which has been known for a long time but that took years to reach the product stage. Saab was the first in the world to present a new generation of radar systems with electronic circuits based on gallium nitride. 

The new ground radar portfolio, known as Aesa Radar, with several active electrically operated antennas, was launched in 2014. The radar could quickly change directions and search over a larger area, see farther and search for several things at once. 


GlobalEye – the latest innovation

Today’s threat scenarios not only include increasingly quicker and smaller missiles, but also stealth aircraft and drones. These can often be confused with birds due to their manoeuvrability and perceived size. Surveillance has developed software for Giraffe radar systems that enables differentiation between drones and birds, and that can even automatically remove birds from radar images. The new stealth technology and challenges that it entails are behind Surveillance's latest major innovation, GlobalEye, which was unveiled for the press in February 2018 and had its maiden flight a few weeks later.

GlobalEye is an airborne surveillance system consisting of a large number of advanced sensors. The main sensor is the ten-metre long Erieye ER radar unit, mounted on the fuselage of the Bombardier Global 6000. The combination enables targets to be detected and monitored from considerable distances, with surveillance simultaneously conducted from the air, land and sea from one and the same platform.

Smaller and quicker threats

With airborne radar, a much larger field of detection is attained than from the ground because of the Earth's curvature.

“You want to get warnings of incoming threats early enough so that you can take action and sound the alarm,” says Ann Kullberg. “Because the threats are becoming physically smaller, better radar is needed to detect them in time.” 

“We’ve increased the range by 70, maybe 100 percent compared to the old targets,” says Frikrik Wising. “Earlier Russian planes – if you think of them as the old targets – you see at double the distance, while these new stealth aircraft that are only a tenth or hundredth as large, we can now see where we used to see the old targets with our previous generation of sensors” says Fredrik Wising.

The radar has been tested here on the top floor in Kallebäck before being transported to Linköping for installation on Bombardier aircraft.

Three GlobalEye units have been sold so far, all three to the United Arab Republic. But even if it is often a country's air force on the front line and placing new demands on performance, GlobalEye can be used for much more, Ann Kullberg emphasises.

“GlobalEye is not just used by the military, but also in monitoring events and accidents or in anti-terrorism, as well as by countries wanting to protect their fishing zones and other natural resources,” she says. “In Mexico and Brazil, the system is used to monitor the Amazon and to combat drug smuggling. So it's important to see other opportunities as well. Our customers have different reasons for buying these systems.”

Looking for larger national initiatives

Anders Carp believes that the prerequisites for a continued successful cluster in microwave technology in the Gothenburg region are good, but that the cluster could be even stronger if the companies could work together with more targeted initiatives that are more about the demonstrator phase than the research phase. 

“It would be advantageous with test beds in our operations, shared between more of the companies. There’s potential here.”

Moreover, Anders Carp would like to see an enhanced national strategy in this field.

“What kind of preparedness and capabilities does Sweden want with domestic development? Who will finance the next generation of radar systems and who will drive development and research? To maintain all the fundamental skills that exist here and at Chalmers, we need support and a plan for this. It’s the government that made the decision that radar, electronic warfare and a few other things in the field of microwave technology are to be considered as essential security interests, alongside fighter jets and submarines. When you’ve done this, you cannot just wait for things to take care of themselves; you have to take the initiative.”

Erik Behn

Antenna and microwave technology constitutes one of the leading fields in Western Sweden and operations here are cautiously ranked by people in the industry as one of the world's three leading clusters. This would not have happened without close collaboration between business, academia and the public sector.

But there is also a need for something to bind it all together. Chalmers Center of Excellence, CHASE and GHz are two shining examples of this. Since 2017, they have joined together in a consortium with two centres. However, it is also essential that those who work in the industry meet and network. Here the cluster organisation Microwave Road plays an important role with well-attended activities. The specialists in the cluster are not averse to finding out about new applications beyond the fields of telecom, defence and aerospace, such as in life science, foodstuffs and real estate, which is seen in the projects run within the framework of CHASE and GHz.

We also see positive development in the form of new startups, with Icomera, Qamcom and Bluetest as three good examples of startups that have now become scaleups. Without knowing it, you’ve surely used Icomera’s product if you have accessed the Internet via WiFi on Swedish trains and buses. The antennas in your smartphone have most certainly been tested in Bluetest’s chambers. However, more new companies are needed, and this is where Chalmers Ventures, and even the aerospace incubator ESA-BIC at Innovatum, play an important role.

In Business Region Göteborg's work to strengthen the industry, both with investment promotion and cluster development, all the said actors play a major role. If I could wish three things, it would be: 1) even closer cooperation within the Nordic region and here we are already well on the way; 2) that we can attract more global companies to establish in the region; and 3) above all that more young people will have dreams of someday researching and developing new world-leading products in the field. Here we are working closely with Chalmers and Universeum, for example.

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