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X-band radar developed with NI’s LabVIEW FPGA and FlexRIO fights guerilla rainstorms in Japan

Xilinx Employee
Xilinx Employee
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By Dave Wilson, Academic Marketing Director, National Instruments


“Guerilla rainstorm” is the label Japanese media uses for a short, drenching downpour that appears unexpectedly and dumps more than 100mm of rain per hour. Urban heat islands and local winds precipitate these storms, which cause considerable damage including house flooding and destruction, river flooding, and mudslides in mountainous areas of Japan. Sometimes there’s loss of life. Existing weather-radar systems designed to predict weather and monitor hurricanes and rain fronts can be quite large and expensive, which hinders deployment. Furuno Electric in Japan decided to develop a new, compact, high-resolution (1m), low-cost X-band (9.4GHz) radar to provide Japanese cities and towns with an early-warning capability for guerilla storms.



Furuno X-Band Radar on Watch.jpg



Furuno, which initially produced a fish finder back in 1948, is now a leading electronics vendor of navigation and GPS, medical, fishing, networking, and radio communications equipment all based on the company’s expertise in ultrasound and RF. Weather radars represent an entirely new business for Furuno.


Furuno’s engineers faced two major challenges when developing the new X-band weather radar system:


  • It was the company’s first time developing a weather radar
  • Various corrections and changes at the prototype and verification stages were expected


The development team’s main concern was developing the radar’s signal-processing unit. Furuno had traditionally used a custom design process that included PCB design, FPGA programming with an HDL, and C programming for software running on the CPU. For a fast-track project, the custom design process can prove difficult and cumbersome when revisions are needed. The design team felt it needed a design process that would more flexibly accommodate revisions.


In addition, the design team wanted a practical, unified design environment so that it could co-simulate both the digital and analog circuits. Digital and analog circuits for radars are typically designed independently and verified in separate environments. System-level verification that integrates both the digital and analog sections is then performed for the first time only in the prototype stage. That design process would prove impractical for this project.


As a result of these concerns and requirements, the development team selected National Instruments’ (NI) FlexRIO platform—based on Xilinx Virtex-5 FPGAs—and NI’s LabVIEW graphical system-design software and LabVIEW FPGA language-extension module to permit fast design-space exploration and rapid system development and prototyping. NI FlexRIO instruments consist of PXI FPGA modules programmed with NI’s LabVIEW FPGA. NI’s FlexRIO add-on adapter modules provide high-performance analog and digital I/O capabilities. The adapter modules are interchangeable and define the I/O available in the LabVIEW FPGA programming environment.


Here’s an output image from the completed Furuno X-Band weather radar:



Furuno X-Band Weather Radar Output.jpg



Even to the untrained eye, the image clearly shows a storm in progress.


Furuno estimates a 40% reduction in system-development time by adopting the NI-based design approach compared to a conventional design approach. Using the NI FlexRIO platform assisted by FPGA technology avoided all board-level hardware changes. In addition, the company feels that developing everything in NI’s LabVIEW graphical design environment was effective from a human resource perspective because the design team did not require certain domain experts including a board designer, an HDL programmer for the FPGA, or a C programmer for the host software.


The resulting radar system is smaller than competing X-band radar products yet it has the same range and resolution. As a bonus, it runs on household power. Furuno has deployed several of these X-band radars and is already considering product extensions.



Note: Takuo Kashiwa, Yasunobu Asada, and Tomonao Kobayashi of Furuno Electric, Japan submitted this project to the NI Engineering Impact Awards 2014 competition. It won in the RF and Communications category and the competition’s overall Application of the Year Award.