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Direction finding

Direction finding

Direction finding (DF) refers to the establishment of the direction from which a received signal was transmitted. This can refer to radio or other forms of wireless communication. By combining the direction information from two or more suitably spaced receivers, the source of a transmission may be located in space via triangulation. This is called a cross-cut or fix.

For the purpose of direction finding, a large so-called "Iron Horse" worldwide network of FLR-9 antennas was built during the early Cold War.

Some academic research has centered on the use of software-defined radios to perform the DF operations using receivers with one or more separate channels in conjunction with multiple antenna arrays.


Direction finding often requires an antenna that is directional - that is, more sensitive in certain directions than in others. Many antenna designs exhibit this property. For example, a Yagi antenna has quite pronounced directionality, so the source of a transmission can be determined simply by pointing it in the direction where the maximum signal level is obtained. However, to establish direction to great accuracy requires much more sophisticated techniques.

A simple form of directional antenna is the loop aerial. This consists of an open loop of wire on an insulating former, or a metal ring that forms the antenna elements itself, where the diameter of the loop is a tenth of a wavelength or smaller at the target frequency. Such an antenna will be LEAST sensitive to signals that are normal to its face, and MOST responsive to those meeting edge-on, this due to the antenna sensing the difference between the voltages induced either side of it at any instant because of the phase output of the transmitting beacon. Turning the loop face on will not induce any current flow - think of the radio wave slipping through the loop. Simply turning the antenna to obtain minimum signal will establish two possible directions from which the signal could be emanating. The NULL is used, as small angular deflections of the loop aerial near its null positions produce larger changes in current than similar angular changes near the loops max positions. For this reason, a null position of the loop aerial is used. To resolve the two direction possibilities, a sense antenna is used, the sense aerial has no directional properties but has the same sensitivity as the loop aerial. By adding the steady signal from the sense aerial to the alternating signal from the loop signal as it rotates, there is now only one position as the loop rotates 360 Degs at which there is zero current. This acts as a phase ref point, allowing the correct null point to be identified, thus removing the 180 Deg ambiguity. A dipole antenna exhibits similar properties, and is the basis for the Yagi antenna, which is familiar as the common VHF or UHF television aerial. For much higher frequencies still, parabolic antennas can be used, which are highly directional, focusing received signals from a very narrow angle to a receiving element at the centre.

More sophisticated techniques such as phased arrays are generally used for highly accurate direction finding systems called goniometers such as are used in signals intelligence (SIGINT). A helicopter based DF system was designed by ESL Incorporated for the U.S. Government as early as 1972.

See also: Radio direction finder

Single channel DF

Single-channel DF refers to the use of a multi-antenna array with a single channel radio receiver. This approach to DF obviously offers some advantages and drawbacks. Since it only uses one receiver, mobility and lower power consumption are obvious benefits but without the ability to look at each antenna simultaneously (which would be the case if one were to use multiple receivers) more complex operations need to occur at the antenna in order to present the signal to the receiver.

The two main categories that a single channel DF algorithm falls into are amplitude comparison and phase comparison. Some algorithms can be hybrids of the two.

Pseudo-doppler DF technique

The pseudo-doppler technique is a phase based DF method that produces a bearing estimate on the received signal by measuring the doppler shift induced on the signal by sampling around the elements of a circular array. The original method used a single antenna that physically moved in a circle but the modern approach uses a multi-antenna circular array with each antenna sampled in succession.

Watson-Watt / Adcock antenna array

The Watson-Watt technique uses two Adcock antenna pairs to perform an amplitude comparison on the incoming signal. An Adcock antenna pair is a pair of monopole or dipole antennas that takes the vector difference of the received signal at each antenna so that there is only one output from the pair of antennas. Two of these pairs are co-located but perpendicularly oriented to produce what can be referred to as the N-S (North-South) and E-W (East-West) signals that will then be passed to the receiver. In the receiver, the bearing angle can then be computed by taking the arctangent of the ratio of the N-S to E-W signal.


Radio navigation

  • Radio direction finding, or RDF was once the primary aviation navigational aid. Beacons were used to mark "airways" intersections and to define departure and approach procedures. Since the signal transmitted contains no information about bearing or distance, these beacons are referred to as non-directional beacons, or NDB in the aviation world. Starting in the 1950s, these beacons are generally being replaced by the VOR system, in which the bearing to the navigational aid is measured from the signal itself, therefore no specialized antenna with moving parts is required. Due to relatively low purchase, maintenance and calibration cost, NDB's are still used to mark locations of smaller aerodromes and important helicopter landing sites.
  • Similar beacons located in coastal areas are also used for maritime radio navigation, as almost every ship is (was) equipped with a direction finder (Appleyard 1988). Very few maritime radionavigation beacons remain active today (2008) as ships have abandoned navigation via RDF in favor of GPS navigation.
  • In the United Kingdom a radio direction finding service is available on 121.5 MHz and 243.0 MHz to aircraft pilots who are in distress or are experiencing difficulties. The service is based on a number of radio DF units located at civil and military airports and certain HM Coastguard stations. These stations can obtain a "fix" of the aircraft and transmit it by radio to the pilot.

Location of illegal, secret or hostile transmitters - SIGINT

See also: HF/DF and SIGINT.

Emergency aid

There are many forms of radio transmitters designed to transmit as a beacon in the event of an emergency, which are widely deployed on civil aircraft. Modern emergency beacons transmit a unique identification signal that can aid in finding the exact location of the transmitter.

Avalanche rescue

Avalanche transceivers operate on a standard 457 kHz, and are designed to help locate people and equipment buried by avalanches. Since the power of the beacon is so low the directionality of the radio signal is dominated by small scale field effects and can be quite complicated to locate.

Wildlife tracking

Location of radio-tagged animals by triangulation is a widely applied research technique for studying the movement of animals. The technique was first used in the early 1960s, when the technology used in radio transmitters and batteries made them small enough to attach to wild animals, and is now widely deployed for a variety of wildlife studies. Most tracking of wild animals that have been affixed with radio transmitter equipment is done by a field researcher using a handheld radio direction finding device. When the researcher wants to locate a particular animal, the location of the animal can be triangulated by determining the direction to the transmitter from several locations.


Phased arrays and other advanced antenna techniques are utilized to track launches of rocket systems and their resulting trajectories. These systems can be used for defensive purposes and also to gain intelligence on operation of missiles belonging to other nations. These same techniques are used for detection and tracking of conventional aircraft.


Events hosted by groups and organizations that involve the use of radio direction finding skills to locate transmitters at unknown locations have been popular since the end of World War II. Many of these events were first promoted in order to practice the use of radio direction finding techniques for disaster response and civil defense purposes, or to practice locating the source of radio frequency interference. The most popular form of the sport, worldwide, is known as Amateur Radio Direction Finding or by its international acronym ARDF. Another form of the activity, known as "transmitter hunting", "mobile T-hunting" or "fox hunting" takes place in a larger geographic area, such as the metropolitan area of a large city, and most participants travel in motor vehicles while attempting to locate one or more radio transmitters with radio direction finding techniques.


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