According to Ghelfi, a photonic radar system can carry more information about an object, as well as getting higher resolution about the target’s shape and altitude.
"One could think about radar system that makes a fast scan of the coverage area, a quick calculation without too much resolution, just to see what is moving around," Ghelfi said. "Then when you see something you want to concentrate on, then you can be more precise in that direction. This is the flexibility we are talking about."
The Italian PHODIR project is not the first photonic radar system, others have been working on similar idea for the past two decades including the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
"Their contribution is they have integrated a lot of techniques into a radar system," said Henry Zmuda, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Florida.
Experts say that there are plenty of engineering bugs to be worked out and it will take a few years before photonic radar replaces existing electronic radar systems in commercial aviation.
"The application of photonic technology to RF systems such as radar has been an enduring objective for quite some time," said Mark Smith, chief scientist of the sensors and electromagnetic applications laboratory at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. "The development reported by Ghelfi et al. is a potentially noteworthy contribution in the ongoing evolution of RF-photonic technology. It will be interesting to follow their progress."
As for the missing plane, Ghelfi and the others say new radars may better track planes in-flight, but finding them afterward still requires a lot of guesswork, searchers and, perhaps, luck.