Remote Sensing: PHARS and PHARUS (1990 – 1999)

PHased ARray Universal Sar (PHARUS): a polarimetric C-band airborne SAR

PHARUS (PHased ARray Universal Sar) was a full polarimetric C-band (5.3 GHz) aircraft Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) that was used to image the earth’s surface. It was designed and built by TNO-FEL in The Hague, NLR in Amsterdam and the Delft University of Technology under program management of the Netherlands Agency for Aerospace Programs (NIVR) in Delft. TNO-FEL was the main contractor and was responsible for project management. Financial support for the project was provided by the Ministry of Defence and by the Netherlands Remote Sensing Board (BCRS).

T/R-modules of PHARUS
T/R-modules of PHARUS


PHARUS under NLR's Cessna
PHARUS under NLR’s Cessna

SAR systems are distinguished by their high azimuth resolution capability, achieved through signal processing of the Doppler shifts generated by the forward motion of the radar and aircraft. The azimuth resolution in such a system is theoretically independent of the operating distance with the highest obtainable resolution in the order of several meters. SAR systems like PHARUS can generate radar images day and night and in all weather conditions. More on the Principle of SAR and polarimetry can be read at the bottom of this page.

The PHARUS system was divided into three subsystems:

  • the radar in the pod outside the aircraft,
  • the onboard data-processing and recording inside the aircraft,
  • the ground-based SAR processing.

The PHARUS system had a modular architecture, enabling easy adaptation to specific requirements and a user-oriented configuration. The use of a modular phased array enabled a fixed mounting of the radar to the aircraft and avoids gimbaling systems making this SAR concept also suited for small aircraft, which considerably reduced operating costs. The system was capable of operating under turbulent conditions. PHARUS was fully programmable, featuring single and multi-polarisation modes and selection of resolution and range. Even pulse-to-pulse beam steering was supported, enabling advanced features like spotlight-mode, active nulling and multi-target tracking.

Some key features of the PHARUS system were:

  • Modern solid-state radar technology
  • Modular system architecture
  • A modular active phased array antenna
  • Programmable radar characteristics
  • Programmable recording and data-processing
  • Internal calibration
  • Supports satellite-simulating modes (ASAR)

Key specifications of the PHARUS system were:

  • Frequency: 5.3 GHz (C-band)
  • Transmit power: 2OW/module
  • Resolution: 3.75 m in range, up to 1 m azimuth
  • Range up to 30 km
  • Swath width up to 20 km

Before the construction of PHARUS started, experience in the field of SAR has been gained by the development of a prototype system with limited capabilities, called PHARS. This small but powerful system was successfully tested in November 1990 and provided good SAR imagery. PHARS also successfully participated in the ERS-l CAL/VAL campaign in Norway.




Flights with PHARS and PHARUS

(The table below was captured from the year 2000 Pharus project’s webpage and extended with the later flights;
  most images can be enlarged by clicking on them)

PHARUS pod design
PHARUS pod design


  August 25, 1992 PHARS trial above Amsterdam

Recording date  August 25, 1992
Track angle  0 N
Altitude  4877 m
Centre incidence angle  35 Left
Processing mode 12 looks, 50% overlap
Resolution  6 m * 6 m
Number of pixels 768 * 768
  February 11, 1994 Langeoog, Germany by PHARS

Langeoog, Germany by PHARS

Recording date  February 11, 1994
Track angle  179 N
Altitude  4877 m
Centre incidence angle  35 Left
Processing mode  12 looks, 50% overlap
Resolution 6m * 6m
Number of pixels 768 * 768
  February 1, 1995 PHARS was flown over some of the flooded areas in the Netherlands. The image shows an area on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, near Maaseik, showing the river Maas and the flooded areas surrounding it. The image was recorded at an altitude of 4300 m, imaging a swath of 6 km, starting at 5700 m range. The image was processed to a 6-metre resolution using six independent looks. 

Flood of the Maas
Flood of the Maas
  April 19th, 1995 The PHARUS project became on-line
PV1 October 5th, 1995 Linge, Leerdam
First PHARUS image
First PHARUS image
Scene id  Leerdam, Netherlands
Recording date  22 September 1995
Polarisation VV
Altitude  5000 m
Horizontal  Flight direction
Vertical  7 – 14 km
Processing mode  4 looks, slant to ground range converted
Resolution  3 m * 3 m
Pixel spacing 2 m* 2 m
PV2 October 12th, 1995 Geldermalsen
De Betuwe
De Betuwe


Scene id  Geldermalsen, The Netherlands
Recording date  22 September 1995
Polarisation  VV (CO1)
Polarisation  VH (X1)
Altitude  5000 m
Horizontal  flight direction
Vertical  7 – 14 km slant range
Processing mode 4 looks, slant to 
ground range converted
Resolution  3 m * 3 m
Pixel spacing  2 m * 2 m
PV3 January 11th, 1996 Almere

PV03 over Almere
PV3 over Almere
PV4 April 12th, 1996 Eemnes, Amersfoort

PV5 April 25th, 1996 Vlasakkers, Noordoost Polder, Soesterberg, Amersfoort, Leusderheide,
Giethoorn, Heerde

PV6 April 26th, 1996 Soesterberg, Amersfoort, Leusderheide, Apeldoorn, Volkel, Goirle, Gilze,
Biesbosch, West Track (Pernis-Den Haag)
Den Haag-Scheveningen-Wassenaar
Den Haag-Scheveningen-Wassenaar

PV7 July 16th, 1996 Noord-Oost Polder PHARUS Familiarisation flight

Noord-Oost Polder - verschillende gewassen
Noord-Oost Polder – different crops
PV8 July 16th, 1996 PHARUS Familiarisation flight
PV9 August 27th, 1996 Wadden PHARUS Familiarisation flight, Sea bottom topography, Cartography in
tidal area’s

PV10 October 21th, 1996 Reichswald
Reichswaldopname - three polarisations
Reichswald – three polarisations
Scene id  Reichswald (Germany)
Recording date  22 Oct 1996 
Polarimetric  yes 
Colour composition  R=VV,G=HV,B=HH
Altitude  4600 m
Orientation  NNW
Processing mode 5 look
Resolution  approx 3.4 m * 3.4 m
PV11 October 24th, 1996 Swynnerton (UK) Radar jamming experiment
PV12 May 22th, 1997 First PHARUS Test flight 1997
PV13 May 29th, 1997 PHARUS Familiarisation flight
PV14 May 29th, 1997 PHARUS Familiarisation flight

Amsterdam & Schiphol
Amsterdam & Schiphol : The airplane on runway shows resolution
PV15 May 30th, 1997 PHARUS Familiarisation flight
PV16 June 2th, 1997 PHARUS Familiarisation flight

MTI above Zoetermeer - detect traffic speeds
MTI above Zoetermeer – detect traffic speeds
PV17 September 11th, 1997 PHARUS test flight for Freiburg mapping experiment, also the Reichswald
PV18 October 28th, 1997 Freiburg PHARUS test flight for improved data handling

PV19 October 30th, 1997 The Freiburg mapping experiment
PV20 October 30th, 1997 The Freiburg mapping experiment
PV21 January 27th, 1998

Road detection; Leidsche Rijn/Utrecht mapping
Road detection; Leidsche Rijn/Utrecht mapping
PV22 January 29th, 1998 Dynamic Range Limiter flight
PV23 January 29th, 1998 Test flight
  April 21st, 1998 PHARUS Familiarisation end workshop
PV24 April 23rd, 1998 Test flight
PV25 April 23rd, 1998  Silver flight
PV26 April 29th, 1998 PHARUS Resolution Enhancement flight
PV28 January 25th, 1999 Noordwijk PHARUS ASAR Demonstrator sea flight
PV29 January 29th, 1999 Gorinchem Repeat Pass Interferometry

PV30 January 29th, 1999 Rhenen PHARUS ASAR Demonstrator land flight 
PV31 February 8, 1999 Freiburg

PV32 July 11, 1999  
PV33 July 19, 1999  
PV34 September 17, 1999  
PV35 October 12, 1999  
PV36 January 11, 2000 Duindigt, The Hague

Duindigt and Vlietlanden
PV37 February 3, 2000 Coast (land/sea)  
PV38 May 25, 2000 Coast (land/sea)  
PV39 May 25, 2000 Glascow

PV40 May 30, 2000 Den Haag, Enschede
Wassenaarse slag
Wassenaarse slag

Enschede, twee weken na de vuurwerkramp
Enschede, two weeks after the fireworks disaster
PV41 June 14, 2000  
PV42 October 26, 2000  
PV43 June 14, 2001 Marsdiep
PV44 July 9, 2001 German islands

PV45 September 3, 2001  
PV46 September 18, 2001 River area  


Generic SAR processing tool with image of Voorburg, A4 and A13
Generic SAR processing tool with an image of Voorburg, A4 and A13


Background: the principle of SAR

PHARUS is a side-looking imaging radar on a moving platform (aircraft, satellite, etc.). The characteristic feature of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) is the high resolution in the direction of motion, obtained by aperture synthesis. The result is an image, consisting of pixels, resembling an aerial photograph. SAR is in the category of coherent pulse radars, i.e., it transmits pulses (as opposed to a continuous wave), and measures both amplitude and phase of the received echo signal.
The radar illuminates with its antenna beam a patch on the ground, to the side of the platform. By the motion of the platform, an illuminated continuous strip is formed, called the swath, see Image. After processing, the strip is resolved into resolution cells, one of which is depicted in the image. 
After SAR processing, a SAR image consists of an array of pixels, where each pixel value is a measure of the radar reflectivity of the corresponding area, i.e., a resolution cell, on the ground. The image is therefore basically a reflectivity map. The measured value in each pixel is commonly referred to as the backscattering coefficient. For display purposes, it is common practice to display this map using a black and white intensity coding: dark for low backscatter, bright for high back-scatter. This greyscale map constitutes the ‘image’.

To achieve high resolution in the range direction, a short pulse is required. Instead of transmitting a very short pulse with very high peak power, a long time coded pulse with lower peak power, but equal energy is transmitted. The modulation allows compression of the received pulse, thus gathering the total pulse energy into a short pulse. This process is referred to as pulse compression or range compression. The most widely used form of coding is linear frequency modulation (chirp).
To achieve high resolution in the cross-range, or azimuth direction, a very narrow antenna beam would be needed, requiring a very large antenna aperture. The principle of SAR is to extend the small physical antenna aperture to a many times larger ‘synthetic aperture’ by coherent integration of echoes received over a certain distance travelled by the moving platform. In the case of PHARUS, for instance, the real antenna is 1 meter long, while the synthetic aperture may be several hundred metres long.

SAR principle schematic
SAR principle schematic

Coherent integration is mathematically analogous to pulse compression and is called azimuth compression. This equivalence can be understood by considering that the frequency modulation in the transmitted pulse is similar to the Doppler frequency modulation induced by the motion of the platform. Hence, the Doppler modulation that exists in a series of received pulses, due to motion, is used in a way similar to the frequency modulation within a pulse, which is intentionally generated by the radar.
A characteristic feature of SAR is that azimuth resolution is independent of range. In radars that do not employ the synthetic aperture principle (therefore sometimes called real aperture radars), cross-range resolution is determined by the antenna beam width and is, therefore, an angular resolution. The resulting geometric resolution gets worse as the distance increases. In SAR, the larger antenna footprint at longer range allows longer observation of an object (longer synthetic aperture), so that the resulting geometric resolution remains the same in the end. In practice, the range is limited by the amount of transmitting power available. Another basic property of coherent imaging radars, such as SAR, is the phenomenon of ‘speckle’. This is a type of noisiness that can be reduced by an averaging technique called multi-looking.

Principle of polarimetry

Early SAR systems used one single polarisation antenna for transmitting pulses and receiving their echoes. These were therefore called non-polarimetric systems. For instance, if the antenna was linearly horizontally polarised, the system was an HH polarised system, that is, it used horizontal polarisation for both transmission and reception. Analyses of the SAR images always left questions unanswered like, what would the image have been if another system had been used, for example, a VV, or an HV, or a differently polarised system? Is the polarisation used optimally for the application? These questions are answered completely by the use of polarimetric systems. The subject of polarimetry is the interpretation of polarimetric data.
The basic use of a polarimetric image is the synthesis of images with arbitrary transmit and receive polarisations. From the scattering matrix map, images can be created representing arbitrary transmit and receive polarisations, even arbitrary elliptical ones. The following advantages of polarimetry have been demonstrated:

  • contrasts between targets and backgrounds can be maximised by choosing the correct transmit and receive polarisations,
  • the accuracy of crop type and land-use classification results increases,
  • the estimation accuracy of soil and vegetation parameters (like forest biomass) increases.

In a non-polarimetric SAR image, the reflectivity of a single resolution cell is measured as a single number, the backscattering coefficient (usually HH or VV), which can be displayed using intensity coding (black and white). In a fully polarimetric SAR image, such as generated by PHARUS, four polarisation combinations of the backscatter coefficients are displayed, e.g. by using both intensity and colour coding. Furthermore, using these four polarisation channels, any other polarisation can be generated, e.g. for reasons of calibration or contrast optimisation.
The polarimetric generalisation of the backscattering coefficient is called the scattering matrix S. The matrix consists of four complex numbers, representing the complex backscattering coefficients for all four polarisation combinations, HH, HV, VH and VV.

Polarimetric scattering matrix
Polarimetric scattering matrix

PHARUS is capable of measuring the full scattering matrix rather than the backscatter coefficient for one polarisation setting only. It is measured as follows. The PHARUS polarimetric SAR in full polarisation mode uses a single phased array antenna which can be electronically switched between horizontal and vertical polarisation. In full polarimetric mode, it first transmits a horizontally polarised pulse and then records the horizontally and vertically received echoes (both amplitude and phase) simultaneously, using two receive channels. The generated complex numbers correspond to Shh and Svh, respectively. It then repeats this step for a vertically polarised transmitted pulse; both polarisations are interleaved on Transmit. This completes the 2 x 2 matrix.

Since the scattering matrix contains many independent variables, there are many ways in which a polarimetric image could be displayed. One way of doing this is to assign colours to the matrix elements, and thus create a colour image. However, it is not possible to convey all information contained in the scattering matrices in a single colour image.
The polarimetric analogue of multi-looking (for speckle reduction) is not performed by averaging scattering matrices, because the information would be lost by simply adding these complex matrices. An intermediate processing step is necessary: the conversion of the scattering matrices to 4´4 real symmetric Stokes matrices. These are subsequently averaged. The Stokes matrix consists of real numbers only, but still contains the information of the complex scattering matrix, even redundantly. When Stokes matrices are have been averaged, a transformation back to scattering matrices is generally not possible.