11 radar reflectors tested : Not all models are really easy to see

Alexander Worms

 ·  14.05.2023

Radar reflectors in the test: A large reflector, suspended almost in the rain catcher position, produces a good echo

This is how we tested

11 radar reflectors in the test: the results, how radar reflectors work, radar technology: broadband or magnetron radar.

Who needs a passive radar reflector in the age of AIS? Thanks to modern electronics, you are highly visible on the screens, certainly on those of commercial shipping. Well, the question seems justified at first glance. On closer inspection, however, the answer is clear: everyone who is on the water with commercial shipping needs such a device. This is because AIS technology is dependent on a power supply - if this fails, the yacht is no longer visible. Passive radar reflectors work at all times. What's more, there are some areas, such as the Waddenzee in the Netherlands, where a radar reflector is simply mandatory.

Not much has changed in terms of products in recent years. On the market, the Tin cube which Tubes and the Echomax . There was also a device called Trilens. This reflector is now sold under the name 3Lenzz offered again.

But how good is the performance of the reflectors in practice and when it is not a question of being seen by large devices on the bridge of a commercial vessel, but by a less powerful yacht radar? First of all, it is difficult to make generalisations and the conclusions must be formulated precisely.

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yacht radar reflector test

The problem is explained using an example: the 3Lenzz consists of three spheres that are mounted at an angle of 120 degrees to each other. A test by the British coastguard had already shown that it has a blind spot every 120 degrees. If radar signals hit this blind spot, the echo on the screen disappears. All reflectors have such blind spots, to a greater or lesser extent. During our test, we recognised the 3Lenzz by the fact that the echo was clearly visible, disappeared for a few orbits and then reappeared. The test boat was obviously close to a blind spot on the reflector. In practice, this would be the case when approaching with an exact bearing, for example when a ship is travelling towards an anchor berth that is not swinging. However, if the angle between the two changes by just a few degrees, there is an echo.

The conclusion that it doesn't work well because it was sometimes poorly visible in the test would not be the whole truth. The echoes were clear when measured from a different position. The conclusion is therefore that the 3Lenzz delivers good results with changing courses of approach and only shows weaknesses at three points on the full circle.

To simulate the situation on a sailing boat, we measured each reflector vertically and at an angle of 30 degrees. Here, too, some models showed weaknesses. In particular, the models with an already small reflective surface sometimes collapsed significantly. However, even the weakest reflector ensured that our test pontoon appeared on the radar screen.

The echo of each reflector was measured a total of eight times - from a distance of 0.5 and 1.5 nautical miles, vertically and at an angle of 30 degrees, using a modern broadband radar and a conventional magnetron radar. The displays of the broadband radars are shown in the individual test images. Measurements were taken from a motorboat on which both antennas were installed. The reflectors were installed at a height of around three metres on a pontoon on a wooden mast, which could also be tilted. The results were then saved using a screenshot on the Garmin devices used; these were radars commonly used on yachts. We optimised the settings of the radar unit for the medium-sized sheet metal reflector and did not change them in the further course of the test in order to ensure the same conditions for all reflectors. We only tested the two inflatable reflectors in an upright position, as these are usually suspended.

Plastimo sheet metal small

Plastimo sheet metal small

At close range, it is always easily recognisable on both devices. At greater distances, it is not visible in a vertical position; echoes only became visible when the mast was tilted. For an optimum echo, the reflector must be mounted in the rain catcher position, but this can only be the case either in an upright or tilted (in the test) position. Mounting is difficult, the metal sheets are sharp-edged.

  • Weight: 0.45 kg
  • Reflective surface, total: 3.0 m²
  • Price: 33,92 €
  • Distribution: Bukh Bremen
  • Dimensions: 215 x 215 x 280 mm
  • Rating: ***

Plastimo sheet metal RORC

Plastimo sheet metal RORC

The big brother is consistently easier to recognise on both devices at close range. From a greater distance, the solid-state radar struggles with reproduction. On the radar, the reflector cannot be seen in an upright position; when the boat is heeled over, it blends in with the tug echo. The reflector is very large. There is no opening on the inside to feed a stage through; the installation of the reflector on a sailing boat is unclear.

  • Weight: 1.0 kg
  • Reflective surface, total: 7.0 m²
  • Price: 52,48 €
  • Dimensions: 340 x 340 x 470 mm

Echomax EM 12

Echomax EM 12

Good visibility at both distances. A rather weak echo when measured upright on the magnetron radar. At the greater distance, the reflector also clearly stands out from the echo of the tug. Mounting is easy, a foot helps with mounting on the spreader, for example. A spherical cut-out in the centre makes mounting on the stay easier as it can be threaded through. The plates are not sharp-edged.

  • Weight: 0.73 kg
  • Reflective surface, total: 5.5 m²
  • Price: 80,50 €
  • Distribution: Lindemann KG
  • Dimensions: 360 mm

Mobri S2

The rod is only visible as an echo from a short distance, but it is always equally good, regardless of whether it is vertical or inclined. At greater distances, it is invisible on the semiconductor radar. Only the magnetron radar can detect an echo in a vertical position. The reflector is lightweight and easy to install. However, it is more expensive than the similarly performing Plastimo tube. A base for mounting on deck is available.

  • Weight: 0.38 kg
  • Reflective surface, total: 2.0 m²
  • Price: 49 € (as of 8/2022)
  • Distribution: Lankhorst Hohorst
  • Dimensions: 50 x 570 mm

Plastimo pipe small

Plastimo pipe small

At close range, the Plastimo tube is reasonably visible, but the echoes are visibly weaker compared to the Mobri tube. At greater distances, an echo is only recognisable in a vertical position and on the semiconductor radar. The tube therefore reacts sensitively to heeling. Some of the aluminium plates inside are severely bent and not aligned at right angles. Lightest reflector in the test field.

  • Weight: 0.25 kg
  • Reflective surface, total. 2,0 m²
  • Price. 36,53 €
  • Dimensions: 50 x 580 mm

Mobri S4

Same picture as its little brother: no visibility at a distance of 1.5 nautical miles. Only the magnetron radar in vertical position shows a slight echo. However, the Mobri is clearly visible at close range. The twice as large reflective surface compared to the smaller version does not result in a better echo. The extra weight and price are therefore not worth it. Also available with base.

  • Weight: 0.88 kg
  • Reflective surface, total: 4.0 m²
  • Price: € 95 (as of 8/2022)
  • Dimensions: 100 x 590 mm

Plastimo pipe large

Plastimo pipe large

The same picture as with the competitors in tube form: At short distances, the image is usually good, although very small echoes occur with magnetron radar; at greater distances, they are almost completely invisible. Here too, the larger reflective surface does not result in a better echo. The aluminium plates inside are also bent and not mounted at right angles. The workmanship does not look very high quality due to the burrs on the plastic.

  • Weight: 0.90 kg
  • Price: 62,83 €

Echomax 230 BR

Echomax 230 BR

The very large device is the only reflector that produces an echo under all conditions and regardless of the radar technology. However, these are sometimes rather weak, especially if the reflector is tilted. If the reflector is upright, very good echoes are consistently displayed. The Echomax is very large and heavy, the required mounting bracket costs extra, but is very solid. Rather for large ships.

  • Weight: 2.5 kg
  • Reflective surface, total: 24 m²
  • Price: 301,07 €
  • Dimensions: 245 x 610 mm
  • Evaluation: ****


The 3Lenzz shows consistently good echoes at short distances. At greater distances, reliable echoes are only visible when the device is mounted vertically. If the device is tilted, a strong echo is only visible about every third round, but it is reliably visible in the same place. This is probably a consequence of the three-part design, see running text. The 3Lenzz is the most expensive and heaviest reflector in the test.

  • Price: 389 €
  • Distribution: Northwest radio
  • Dimensions: 300 x 300 x 150 mm

Echomax EM230i

Echomax EM230i

Very good and clear echoes throughout thanks to the large projection surface. Due to the suspended mounting, the reflector is always aligned vertically, so no curved values were measured. Due to its low weight, it is the ideal addition for small cruisers who only want to use the reflector when necessary. As with the ball, we recommend replacing the reflector after five years. However, it is very expensive in comparison.

  • Weight: 0.42 kg
  • Reflective surface, total: 17 m²
  • Price: 296 €
  • Dimensions: 300 x 750 mm

Plastimo inflatable

Plastimo inflatable

Good visibility at short distances, barely visible at greater distances. As the ball always hangs vertically when it is hoisted on a flag halyard, for example, there were no measurements when tilted. Rather poor echoes despite the comparatively large reflective surface. Unfortunately, the ball was leaking, so that constant re-inflation was necessary. The reflector is very large and light when inflated. Expensive.

  • Weight: 0.6 kg
  • Reflective surface: 10 m²
  • Price: 268,94 €
  • Dimensions: 615 mm

11 radar reflectors in the test

It used to be like this: after the radar unit was switched on, it took quite a while for the first image to be taken. This was because the electron beam tube, the magnetron, had to heat up first. This took time and required a lot of energy. Operating the devices also swallowed up a lot of electricity. So, on long patrols in areas with little traffic, it was only allowed to carry out a sweep every few minutes. If nothing was seen, the device switched back to stand-by mode and only used the energy required to keep the tube at the right temperature.

Modern radar devices solve this differently. There, it is not tubes that generate the signal, but semiconductors. They can also generate signals of different wavelengths. As a result, the radar is available as soon as it is switched on and requires much less power. In addition, the radiation is significantly lower, which is good for the health of the people on board. A broadband or semiconductor radar generates roughly the same radiation as a smartphone. Due to the different wavelengths, the radar can generate even more information from the reflected signals. So-called Doppler radars quickly recognise whether an echo is approaching or moving away and in which direction it is doing so without the need for complex plotting. This makes it possible to calculate the point of closest approach and the time until then.

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yacht radar reflector test

Which Radar Reflector?

Rigging radar reflectors. which radar reflector to choose.

Tri-lens – From what I understand this radar reflector offers some of the best all around performance for the price. Typically you will see these mounted to the face of the mast. This presents an inherent problem for us sailboat riggers; it is in the path of the jib which is inevitably going to try and wipe it off of the front of the mast. This is especially a problem on boats which utilize overlapping headsails, don’t have forward lower shrouds, don’t have a mast mounted radar and guard (as pictured above), have aft swept spreaders, or use a permanent Stay-sail stay to help protect this vulnerable part from getting knocked off. These reflectors have recently been modified with a second mounting bracket on top for a sturdier mount (not pictured). This second bracket has made us more confident in installing these, as there is a big difference in how sturdy the unit is. Keep in mind the plastic cover of these lenses are well built and therefore very heavy. You’ll want to make sure that you have taken every precaution to ensure that it won’t come crashing down on your head! Echo Master – The most tried and trued of all of the reflectors. Many will argue that even though this isn’t the “fairest of them all”, it works pretty darn well. Especially when mounted in the coined “catch rain position” (pictured above), using Davis’ Echomaster Hanging Mount , optional. The problem is how do you mount the thing without it flailing about like a wild, out-of-control disco ball. See the gallery below for how we achieve a good way for these to be mounted beneath the first set of spreaders…

How to mount an echomaster.

Although there are many more products out there worth researching and we will gladly always explore new products and options, these are the brands that we have had most of our experience installing. Need more information or help installing a radar reflector? If in doubt, don’t forget to  Contact your local rigger for assistance.

Do you have any experiences with radar reflectors? Don’t forget to  Share your thoughts below and thanks for the read.

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Have you seen these https://www.leadingedgepower.com/shop/products/wind-turbines/le-v50-vertical-axis-wind-turbine-1013843.html They are a bit heavy, and need need strong brackets, a simple ‘guard’ could be made to protect the sail- but the spinning blades – besides producing power – are supposed to be highly effective in reflecting Radar signals.

Thanks for the useful article! Buying a boat equipped with a Mobri and will consider adding a tri-lens for passages. Also AIS is a must! Are you still giving away t-shirts? I’d love one if so.

Thanks for the read and the kind words Rory. We are OUT of shirts!! Sorry, I wish I had one for you. Keep checking in with us, we’re always getting new swag for giveaways.

Just a comment from another industry: I fly for the airlines and all jets these days are equipped with TCAS, or the traffic collision avoidance system. This is an active collision avoidance system where TCAS equipped aircraft talk to the installations on other aircraft sharing altitude and airspeed information. If the TCAS computer senses that it’s safe zone has been breached it will provide the two aircraft in question “traffic advisories” along with an audible warning. If no action is taken and the two jets continue to close on each other, a “resolution advisory” is issued giving the two pilots opposite avoidance instructions to avoid a crash. This has virtually eliminated midair collisions between commercial aircraft.

Of course, you have a little less time to see and react when the closure rate is 1000 knots, but it is a tremendous system.

Given my experience with TCAS, I’d really recommend an active collision avoidance system, particularly if you spend any time around commercial shipping regardless of the prevalance of fog in your area.

As far as trying to McGuyver something, I would think that the lids of tin cans would work better than tin foil. In fact, if you had a few of them and some reflective tape you could probably come up with an approximation of an Echomaster in a pinch.

Thanks for the comment.

There is a collision avoidance system for boats, and although this is good, many boaters are cheap. I like the tin can idea, going to do that. It is difficult enough to afford the basic safety gear. My step dad had no gps or electronics in his day. The fanciest piece of equipment he had besides his sextant was an oil lamp which he gave me for my boat. I use it whenever I feel like getting a headache. Many boats also have proximity alarms, etc. It pays to have as many of these safeties as possible. (as affordable) I have a good friend that sailed the oceans solo for very may years. He is in his 80’s and I just convinced him to get a GPS a few years ago. He also asked me to find him a woman online, so if you know of someone… My question would be, do any of these barrel or inflatable reflectors double as mast flotation in case of capsize?

Haha! I have my own troubles with that Alain. Even though the Firdell Blipper has a very buoyant look I wouldn’t trust it as my anti-capsize device. Perhaps that’s what any of these are good for. Seems rather controversial…this whole radar reflector business.

Thank you for the chuckle and for taking the time.

Yes the Echomaster is quite effective if hung in the RAIN CATCH ATTITUDE, that , despite your claim, is NOT shown. Hung as shown by one corner is a rain SHEDDING position! The reflector needs 2-3 attachments so a ‘ CUP’ is formed at the top…hence ‘rain catch position’. When hung this way the other reflecting surfaces of the side pockets are more likely to bounce the radar signal back to its source (acting like a prism) than a flat vertical plane which are unlikely to be square on to the signal source Tilting will make it worse where the rain catch angles will still work. Area is important as is the flatness of the surfaces and accurate corner assembly. Regards, Lew .

Thanks for commenting and all of your points. You are correct the gallery image depicted does not employ the “Catch Rain Position”. This is noted below the gallery collection, but it is a little hard to read, I will put it at the top. Thanks, this is once of the many reasons I encourage commentors. The generic product image from Echomaster does show the unit in this position. I will add an image caption. Davis actually makes a specific spring style hanging (instead of the bridle) that is rigged through the center of the Echomaster so that it can be hoisted in the coined “Catch Rain” position… this is also shown (if you look carefully) in the Echomaster product image in the article. On the Davis site, the “Catch Rain” hanging mount is described as…

“#153 Deluxe Hanging Echomaster Anodized aluminum plates. Comes with hanging mount system to suspend unit from mast or rigging in perfect “catch rain” position. Vinyl storage case included. #157 Surface Mount System can be purchased separately”

As the article suggests we are no experts on radar reflectors or their performance, but just wanted to speak to some of the more functional ways of rigging/installing the various products so that they do not interfere with boats sailing systems as well as provide safety for the crew below on decks. Therefore, it is our belief that once the reader chooses the radar reflector(s) and follows the manufacturers guidelines along with our points on mounting them to a sailboat mast, they will have a product that is not only functional but will provide the user with years of trouble free use.

Readers are always urged to get more product specific information directly form the manufacturer. You can get more information on how to properly execute the Echomaster here… .

Thanks for the read.

The Radar reflector is one element of the measures boat owners should take to ensure that they can see other marine traffic and most importantly be seen by other marine traffic. It is clear from the Qinetic report on radar reflectors following the tragic loss of the yacht Ouzo south of the Isle of Wight on the 20/21 August 2006 that boat owners need to select a radar reflector with the biggest possible reflecting area to ensure that they can be seen by radar equipped ships. Furthermore the report confirms that the performance of the Echomaster and Mobri is rather poor and states that poor solutions whilst giving owners piece of mind may in fact do little to improve the boat’s visibility on radar! Cost and ease of installation should be of no importance in the debate. Consequently I would select the Tri-Lens readar reflector if I was selecting a passive reflector but a much better option (confirmed by the Qinectic report) is an dual band (X and S) active reflector such as the Echomax Radar Target Enhances (Echomax Active XS) or the SEA-ME Dual Band which are highly recommended in the Qinetic report..

I have a Firdell Blipper in the top of my mast – above the forestay, so out of the way of any sail. It has been there for 20 years now so your comments on the brackets sound strange to me. I sail on the very busy North Sea and I have never heard of ships or coastguard stations unable to find me on their radar. As a matter of fact I have hardly ever had to alter course when crossing shipping lanes because the other ships see me long before I see them and it seems they think my boat is much bigger then it really is (only 22 ft). So I have great confidence in my Firdell Blipper and already have one handy to mount on my next boat.

It is good to hear a success story with one of these. As the article says there is much controversy surrounding the many different radar reflector options. These are just the view points as we’ve experienced them. Putting the reflector above the headstay is a great idea…probably why it has lasted so long and works so well. There is nothing to mess with it up there and from what I understand the higher the better.

In regards to performance we know really very little hence the three articles cited that conducted testing on the various products.

That’s a big reflector for such a small boat no? What type of 22′ sailboat is this?

Thank you for taking the time. ~T.R.C.

I build n deliver boats in the gulf of mexico north and south the echo master is always in my delivery bag i dont trust anything else even if the boat im delivering has one i put my spare up also i keep mine polished for better radar reflection

That’s a smart boat delivery captain in my book. Thanks for taking the time Rick!

The Canadian Coast Guard and Practical Sailor also did test years ago and the small tubular reflectors did very poorly. We formerly operated a charter fleet and I would never install a Plastimo or Mobri. After a strong wind one night, I came onto the float and found pieces of a tubular reflector which had shattered.

They are easy to mount, however virtually useless, especially when heeled. Viki. the bag of foil would be of no help. You need precise 90 degree corners to reflect the radar signal.

Thanks for the comment. No question on the Mobri having tested poorly, all three of the linked sites say so too. As I said we just like these from a rigging point of view. Perhaps mounting two, as we always do, would improve some of these test results? Also, in my experience these are usually improperly mounted….almost always, hence they can come crashing down; this is the case with anything though, right? Not a one, in ten years of rigging offshore boats has come crashing down at least unbeknownst to me ;-0) Remember, we feel the key with these is to have them installed on a diagonal shroud so that when the boat heels at least one of the reflectors sits in the vertical position. I believe when used in conjunction with and properly rigged Echomaster beneath the spreader, you are really increasing your chances of being seen. In our opinion, this combination is probably the best possible set up for double spreader masts with aft swept spreaders, overlapping headsails, forward lowers, mast mounted radars with guards, or inner forestays, to help protect the hardware from becoming dislodged or damaged by the tacking sail.

Modern boats with non-overlapping headsails have much less issue here.

Having said that, especially if you do have a more traditional mast with fore and aft lowers, inner forestays, or radar with a guard, we have grown partial to the Rozendal Trilens. This seems to be a top performer in regards to the testing conducted by the various agencies. Of course conditions, type of radar scanner, heel, and more, are all factors in how well they test. The Rozendal Trilens is a very good quality reflector and now that it has the second mounting bracket, is a sturdier option for the front of sailboat mast.

What are some other good brands out there worth checking out for sailboat mast mounted radar reflectors?

Great post! We are in the market for a radar reflector. We don’t get much fog here in the South Island of New Zealand, however we were recently sailing down the coast on an overnight trip and when the sun rose we found we were completely shrouded in fog – and had no radar or radar reflector! After posting our plight on Facebook a friend suggested we hoist a bag of screwed up tin foil up the mast, which we subsequently did. It made us feel a bit better, but not sure that it was actually effective at all! I think we will get an echo master to have on board just in case on our next coastal passage. But for our next boat – the one we sail around the world in, the Mobri does look very sleek.

Thanks Viki! We have to send you a shirt or something, you are a great follower, our best for sure. Yes on the Echomaster. And 2 Mobri’s or a Tri-lens would be my recommendatio for the more permanent solution.

Email us for a FREE shirt ! Just tell me you and your husband’s size and shipping address (American Sizes, i.e. they may be a bit BIG lol, but they’ll shrink too)

Thanks for commenting and Happy Sailing! ~T.R.C.

Yay thank you! Do you think the tin foil up the mast would work? I have had a mixed reaction from people we told as to whether they thought it would work or not. It made us feel better anyway. I will send you a message. Love your blog :)

Lol…I really don’t know but….no I don’t think so.

Ha ha – damn! Ah well at least we didn’t get run over… ;)

Just don’t fold the foil into the shape of a stealth fighter.

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Installing a new radar reflector

Keep your family safe while sailing with this guide on installing a radar reflector for your boat.

Installing a New Radar Reflector

As you embark on your sailing adventure with your family, safety should always be a top priority. One essential piece of safety equipment that you should consider upgrading or installing on your boat is a radar reflector. In this comprehensive guide, we will discuss the importance of radar reflectors, the different types available, and how to properly install one on your boat.

Table of Contents

Why you need a radar reflector, passive reflectors, active reflectors, choosing the right radar reflector for your boat, mounting options, installation tips, testing your radar reflector.

A radar reflector is a device that helps make your boat more visible to other vessels’ radar systems. This is particularly important in situations where visibility is poor, such as during fog, heavy rain, or at night. By increasing your boat’s radar signature, you can significantly reduce the risk of collisions with other vessels.

In many countries, radar reflectors are required by law for certain types of boats, especially those under a specific size or those that are not made of metal. Even if it’s not a legal requirement for your boat, it’s still a wise investment to ensure the safety of your family and your vessel.

Types of Radar Reflectors

There are two main types of radar reflectors: passive and active. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages, so it’s essential to understand the differences before making a decision.

Passive radar reflectors are the most common type and work by reflecting the radar signals emitted by other vessels back to their radar systems. They do not require any power source and are generally low maintenance. There are several different designs of passive reflectors, including:

Octahedral reflectors: These are made of metal plates arranged in an octahedral shape, which provides a strong radar reflection from all angles. They are often collapsible for easy storage when not in use.

Luneburg lens reflectors: These are spherical devices made of materials with varying refractive indices, which focus the incoming radar signals and reflect them back to their source. They are less common than octahedral reflectors but can provide a stronger reflection.

Cylindrical reflectors: These are made of metal tubes arranged in a cylindrical shape, which can provide a strong radar reflection when oriented correctly. However, their performance can be significantly reduced if they are not aligned with the incoming radar signals.

Active radar reflectors, also known as radar target enhancers (RTEs), work by receiving the incoming radar signals and then transmitting a stronger signal back to the source. This can result in a much larger radar signature than passive reflectors, making your boat more visible to other vessels.

Active reflectors require a power source, usually your boat’s 12-volt electrical system, and may also require periodic maintenance. They are generally more expensive than passive reflectors but can provide a higher level of safety due to their increased visibility.

When selecting a radar reflector for your boat, there are several factors to consider:

Size and weight: The size and weight of the reflector should be appropriate for your boat. Larger reflectors generally provide a stronger radar reflection, but they can also be more challenging to install and may create additional wind resistance.

Performance: The performance of a radar reflector is measured in square meters of radar cross-section (RCS). A higher RCS value indicates a stronger radar reflection. Look for a reflector with an RCS value that is appropriate for your boat’s size and the conditions in which you will be sailing.

Mounting options: Consider how and where you will mount the reflector on your boat. Some reflectors come with mounting brackets or can be easily attached to existing structures, while others may require additional hardware or modifications to your boat.

Budget: Radar reflectors are available at various price points, so consider your budget when making a decision. Keep in mind that investing in a high-quality reflector can provide increased safety and peace of mind during your sailing adventures.

Installing Your Radar Reflector

Once you have chosen the right radar reflector for your boat, it’s time to install it. Proper installation is crucial to ensure the reflector’s effectiveness and your safety on the water.

There are several mounting options for radar reflectors, including:

Mast mount: Mounting the reflector on your boat’s mast is a popular option, as it provides a high and central location for optimal radar reflection. This can be done using brackets or clamps designed for your specific reflector.

Shroud mount: Another option is to mount the reflector on your boat’s shrouds (the cables that support the mast). This can be done using special shroud clamps or by attaching the reflector directly to the shrouds with cable ties or other fasteners.

Radar arch mount: If your boat has a radar arch, you can mount the reflector on the arch using brackets or clamps. This provides a high and unobstructed location for the reflector.

Pole mount: If none of the above options are suitable for your boat, you can mount the reflector on a dedicated pole. This can be a fixed or removable pole, depending on your preferences and your boat’s layout.

When installing your radar reflector, keep the following tips in mind:

Height: The higher the reflector is mounted, the more effective it will be. Aim to mount the reflector as high as possible while still being accessible for maintenance and inspection.

Clearance: Ensure there is adequate clearance around the reflector so that it is not obstructed by other structures or equipment on your boat. This is particularly important for passive reflectors, which rely on a clear line of sight to incoming radar signals.

Orientation: Make sure the reflector is oriented correctly according to the manufacturer’s instructions. This is especially important for cylindrical reflectors, which need to be aligned with the incoming radar signals for optimal performance.

Secure mounting: Ensure the reflector is securely mounted to your boat using appropriate hardware and fasteners. Regularly inspect the mounting points for signs of wear or corrosion and replace any damaged components as needed.

After installing your radar reflector, it’s essential to test its performance to ensure it is providing adequate radar reflection. This can be done by asking a nearby vessel with radar to check your boat’s radar signature or by using a radar reflector tester, which is a specialized device that measures the strength of your reflector’s radar reflection.

Regularly testing your radar reflector is a good practice to ensure it is functioning correctly and providing the necessary safety benefits.

Installing a radar reflector on your boat is an essential safety measure that can significantly reduce the risk of collisions with other vessels. By understanding the different types of reflectors available, choosing the right one for your boat, and properly installing and maintaining it, you can ensure the safety of your family and your vessel during your sailing adventures.

Yachting World

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Radar reflectors – the bad and the ugly

  • Elaine Bunting
  • April 12, 2007

If the performance of radar reflectors and other safety gear is still so poor, why is no independent organisation testing them out?

A few years ago I did a test on man overboard gear and our panel of testers came away with deep reservations about using the sling method of recovery. When I looked into this afterwards I found that although the RORC recommends a Lifesling or similar, it had never tested one. No official body in the UK had ever independently tested any MOB recovery methods.

Ever since then I’ve thought what a pity it is we don’t have such an independent organisation to evaluate the effectiveness of safety equipment we all buy in good faith.

I thought about an independent test panel again when I read the conclusions of the  cms_resources/Ouzo.pdf/?p=234>MAIB’s investigation into the deaths of the Ouzo crew. They report of the octahedral radar reflector that ‘overall performance is poor’ and that there was only ‘a 50% probability [it] would have been seen by the ship’.

As far as I know, all the radar reflectors you can buy for a yacht are somewhere between poor and better than nothing. But it’s only as far as I know. The last major test I can think of was done 12 years ago by  safety/Studies/radar_reflector_test.htm>US Sailing They found that all were marginal – except the radar flag, which was totally useless – and concluded: ‘none of the reflectors would be more than marginally useful in offshore conditions where S-band radar were being used, except perhaps in calm sea conditions’.

It ought to be time to repeat this test, and to look closely at products such as the Sea-Me active radar target enhancer, which have come on the market since this test was done. Isn’t it time somebody in the marine industry set up an independent and authoritative body to properly test reflectors, liferafts, lifejackets and the like?

  • Radar reflectors

Radar Reflectors

To maximise their visibility to ships navigating using radar as a primary means of identifying potential hazards, including collision situations, boats can be fitted with a radar reflector.

In fact this is a requirement under the SOLAS V regulations:

SOLAS V requires vessels if less than 150 gross tonnage and if practicable, [shall have] a radar reflector or other means, to enable detection by ships navigating by radar at both 9 and 3 GHz.

Essentially this means that if it is possible to use a radar reflector on your boat you should do so, but you should also be aware of the limitations of some of the radar reflectors currently available to you.

X band and S band

Marine radars operate in two bands, the X band (9410 MHz ± 30 MHz) and the S band (3050 MHz ± 30 MHz). X band radars are heavily affected by sea or rain clutter, whereas S band radar assures large target detection in adverse weather. There are now radar target enhancers (RTE) available for recreational use that operate satisfactorily in both bands.

Some passive radar reflectors also respond to both bands but with reduced performance on S Band.

ISO standards

The ISO test standards, with which radar reflectors must comply, are ISO 8729-2:2009 (Active) and ISO 8729-1:2010 (Passive).   

Passive radar reflectors built to the current standard (few, if any, are available) are often too large to be practically fitted to smaller vessels and it is with this in mind that the MCA have issued their guidance. They consider it to be feasible for vessels of 15m and over to fit radar reflectors that comply with the standard, but advise that vessels of under 15m in length should fit a radar reflector with the greatest echoing area practicable.

With this in mind, the critical factors when selecting and fitting a radar reflector remain to ensure a device with the largest possible radar cross section is carried and that it is mounted in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Generally speaking, the higher a reflector is mounted, the better, although vessel operators should take account of the possible effects of the mass of the reflector on the stability of the vessel.

The current ISO test standards in very basic terms require that a radar reflector has:

  • a peak Radar Cross Section (RCS) of at least 10m
  • an RCS of at least 2.5m over an azimuth angle of at least 240° when the reflector is vertical (i.e. not healed over)
  • an RCS of at least 0.625m over an azimuth angle of at least 240° for angles of heal up to +/-15

Radar reflector trials

Over the past few years there have been several trials carried out by the boating press, on how effectively radar reflectors for recreational boats meet these requirements. All seemingly conclude that whatever their manufacturers might claim, some designs are little better than no reflector at all and even the most popular do not always come up to expectations, this is hardly surprising when the IMO requirement is fully understood. 

Laboratory test results on passive units have shown that average RCS values are often much lower than claimed and many reflectors have large nulls (areas where there are virtually no radar returns at all). The physics of radar reflection is complicated and it is notoriously difficult to conduct trials under real conditions at sea where conditions are less than perfect and reproduce test lab results. Given that the reflection from even the best recreational reflector is also affected by positioning, orientation, and angle of heel, you may be starting to get the picture that you might not always appear on the [radar] picture!

The current ISO standards resulted from the IMO requirement set out in resolution MSC 164(78). This IMO resolution recognises that consistency of response is more effective in raising the probability of radar detection than single high peaks. This is defined as a Stated Performance Level (SPL), which is required to be maintained at up to 10 or 20 degrees (two classes recognising the stability differences of power and sailing vessels) either side of the vertical, and limits weight to 5kg and volume to 0.05 m3.

Advice from the MCA

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) has issued a Marine Guidance Note on the carriage and use of Radar Reflectors on small vessels.  MGN 349 is a notice to all Owners, Operators, Masters and Skippers of small vessels under 150 tons including Pleasure craft. It can be read in full using the link provided, however in brief the recommendations made in section 4 are as follows:

It is strongly recommended that:

4.1 The requirements of SOLAS Chapter V Regulation 19 are complied with;

4.2 Yachtsmen permanently install not just carry on-board, a radar reflector, or RTE [radar target enhancer] that offers the largest Radar Cross Section (RCS) practicable for their vessel;

4.3 Small craft owners and operators are strongly recommended to fit the best performing radar reflector possible. It is also essential for skippers to be aware that, notwithstanding the type of radar reflector fitted, in certain circumstances their craft may still not be readily visible on ships' radars. They should navigate with caution.

4.4 The following reports published by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch are considered during the process of selecting a radar reflector: http://www.maib.gov.uk/cms_resources.cfm?file=/radar%20reflectors%20report.pdf http://www.maib.gov.uk/publications/investigation_reports/2007/ouzo.cfm

The revision of the test standards have resulted in the introduction from two UK based manufacturers of new active products (RTE’s) to the market, there were, previously a mediocre set of products to select from. The QinetiQ report on their "Performance Investigation of Marine Radar Reflectors on the Market" provides a useful insight into the effectiveness of the products they tested.

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Marine Radar Reflectors for Your Boat

As boating becomes increasingly popular, radar reflectors have emerged as an essential element of marine safety. These reflectors enhance the visibility of small boats, allowing larger ships to detect them via radar navigation and collision avoidance systems. 

This article will explore SOLAS Chapter V Regulation and the MCA’s guidance on radar reflectors for small vessels. We’ll also discuss the different types of reflectors, their performance factors, and the importance of proper installation and maintenance. 

Key Takeaways

  • Radar reflectors are essential for enhancing small boat visibility on radar systems.
  • Different types of radar reflectors are available, including passive and active models.
  • Choosing the right radar reflector depends on factors like size, shape, and mounting options.
  • Compliance with SOLAS and MCA guidance is crucial when selecting a radar reflector.

Principles of Radar Technology

Radar (short for radio detection and ranging) is a system that uses radio waves to detect and locate objects. The equipment transmits radio waves using a transmitter and then detects their reflections as they bounce off objects.

By measuring the time it takes for the radio waves to return and the direction they come from, the radar system can determine the distance, direction, and sometimes the speed of the detected objects.

Different Types of Radar Systems

Several types of radar systems are commonly used:

Pulse Radar : This type of radar sends out short bursts of radio waves, called pulses, and listens for the returning echoes. Pulse radar is widely used for navigation, collision avoidance, and weather detection.

Continuous Wave Radar : This radar system emits a continuous radio wave and measures the frequency shift of the returned signal to determine the speed and distance of detected objects. 

Frequency-Modulated Continuous-Wave Radar : This system is similar to continuous wave radar but changes the frequency of the emitted wave over time. This allows the radar to determine both distance and speed more accurately. 

Role of Reflection in Radar Detection

Reflection is a crucial aspect of radar technology. When radio waves encounter an object, some waves are reflected to the radar system. The reflection’s strength and quality depend on the object’s size, shape, and material. Certain materials, like metals, reflect radio waves more effectively than others.

In a marine context, radar reflectors help make your boat visible on other vessels’ radar systems.

Choosing a Radar Reflector 

Radar reflectors increase your boat’s presence on radar by reflecting radio waves more effectively. This is especially important for smaller boats made of materials that don’t naturally reflect radar waves well, like fiberglass or wood. Utilizing one increases the likelihood of other craft detecting your boat, reducing the risk of an accident.

Types of Radar Reflectors

There are two main categories:

Passive : These don’t require power and work by reflecting incoming radio waves to the source. There are several common designs:

a. Corner Reflectors : Typically triangular, corner reflectors are made of three flat metal surfaces joined at 90-degree angles. They are effective but can be bulky.

b. Octahedral Reflectors : Also called “radar balls,” these reflectors consist of eight triangular metal plates forming octahedrons. They provide good radar reflection and are more compact than corner reflectors.

c. Spherical Reflectors : These round reflectors are made of many small, flat metal surfaces arranged in a sphere. They are less effective than the other designs but have a low-profile appearance.

Active : These reflectors require power and amplify and retransmit incoming radar signals. They provide a stronger reflection than passive reflectors but may require maintenance and a power source.

Materials Used in Radar Reflectors

Radar reflectors are typically made from metal, plastic, or composite materials. Metal reflectors offer the best radar reflection but can be heavy and prone to corrosion. Plastic and composite reflectors are lightweight and corrosion-resistant but may not provide the same level of radar reflection as their metal counterparts.

Radar Detection and Boat Construction Materials

The effectiveness of radar detection can be influenced by the construction materials used in building a boat. Different materials can have varying degrees of radar reflectivity, affecting how well a radar reflector performs. Here’s a brief overview of how common boat construction materials can impact radar detection:

Fiberglass: Fiberglass boats generally have low radar reflectivity. Since fiberglass is a non-metallic material, it does not naturally reflect radar waves well. Installing a radar reflector is particularly important for fiberglass boats.

Aluminum and Steel: Metal boats, such as those made of aluminum or steel, have better natural radar reflectivity due to their metallic composition. However, radar signals may be scattered or absorbed by various boat parts, leading to inconsistent radar returns. Installing a radar reflector can help enhance radar presence by providing a more consistent and stronger radar return.

Wood: Wooden boats can have varying radar reflectivity depending on the type and density of the wood used. Wooden boats may generally have better radar visibility than fiberglass boats but may still benefit from fitting a radar reflector to improve their radar signature.

Selecting the Right Radar Reflector

When choosing a radar reflector for your motor or sailboat, consider the following factors:

Size and Shape : Choose a radar reflector that balances size and effectiveness based on your boat’s size and material. Although larger reflectors provide better reflection, they may be more challenging to install or store.

Placement and Height Above Waterline : Mount the radar reflector as high as possible above the waterline to improve visibility. Avoid placing the reflector behind obstructions that could block the radar signal.

Mounting Options : Select a reflector with a mounting system that suits your boat’s configuration. Some reflectors can be mounted on the mast, while others can be attached to railings or other structures.

Regulations and Recommendations : Be aware of any local regulations or recommendations regarding radar reflectors for your type of boat. 

Radar Reflectors: Performance Standards and Trial Results

Marine radars use the X band (9410 MHz ± 30 MHz) and the S-band (3050 MHz ± 30 MHz). X-band radars can be affected by sea or rain clutter, while S-band radar ensures better target detection in adverse weather. Recreational boaters can now use Radar Target Enhancers (RTE) that work effectively in both bands.

Radar reflectors must comply with ISO test standards, specifically ISO 8729-2:2009 (Active) and ISO 8729-1:2010 (Passive). Passive radar reflectors built to these standards are often too large for smaller vessels.

The MCA has issued guidance suggesting that vessels over 15m use radar reflectors that comply with the standard. In comparison, those under 15m should use a reflector with the largest echoing area feasible.

Several recent trials and reports evaluated the effectiveness of radar reflectors for recreational boats, revealing that some designs perform just as poorly as having no reflector at all. Even popular models may not meet the expected performance standards.

Radar Reflectors and Small Craft

The loss of the yacht ‘Ouzo’ and her crew highlighted the significance of radar reflectors for small vessels. To improve the detectability of small boats on radar, the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Safety of Life at Sea Convention, 1974 (SOLAS) Chapter V Regulation mandates that ships weighing less than 150 gross tonnage have a radar reflector or other detectable means for vessels navigating using radar, if practicable, at 9 and 3 GHz.

Small craft owners and skippers are advised to select the most effective and appropriate radar reflector or Radar Target Enhancer (RTE) for their situation, ensuring they comply with international standards. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) offers detailed guidance on radar reflector selection, installation, and recommendations in MGN 349 (M+F) Amendment 1 .

Testing Your Radar Reflector

Testing your radar reflector is crucial to confirm that it’s performing as intended. Poorly functioning reflectors can cause you to be overlooked by other ships, heightening the risk of accidents and potentially compromising safety.

There are a couple of ways to test the effectiveness:

On-Water Testing : One of the most practical ways to test your radar reflector is on the water. Ask a friend with radar to help you. Move your boat to a reasonable distance from them and check how well your boat appears on its radar screen. Try different distances and angles.

Comparing Reflectors : If you can evaluate multiple reflective models, comparing them while on the water is best. Replace each reflector and note any differences in readings between them.

Understanding Radar Cross-Section (RCS) and Its Relevance to Boat Owners

The Radar Cross-Section (RCS) measures how effectively an object reflects radar waves to the source. A higher RCS means better radar visibility, making your boat easier to detect. Manufacturers may provide RCS values for their radar reflectors, which can help you compare different products. Remember that real-world performance can be influenced by installation and environmental conditions.

Integrating Radar Reflectors with Other Safety Measures

While radar reflectors are important in enhancing your boat’s visibility on radar systems, they should be integrated with other safety measures to ensure comprehensive protection. 

Radar reflectors are just one piece of the safety puzzle. To maximize your boat’s safety, consider implementing the following additional measures:

Navigation Lights : Ensure your boat has proper navigation lights for low light and poor conditions, such as nighttime or foggy weather.

VHF Radio: Maintain a reliable VHF radio onboard to communicate with other craft, receive weather updates, and call for assistance if necessary.

Life Jackets and Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs): Equip your boat with an appropriate number of life jackets and PFDs for all passengers.

Sound Signaling Devices : Carry sound signaling devices, like horns or whistles, to communicate with other boats.

AIS : AIS, or Automatic Identification System, is a technological system that enables data exchange between vessels on the open seas. It allows boats to detect each other’s positions, course, and speed and helps to avoid collisions by alerting them to possible dangers .

Navigating Safely in Areas with High Radar Traffic

When boating in areas with high radar traffic, such as busy harbors or shipping lanes, it’s essential to stay vigilant and follow these safety tips:

Monitor Your Radar : Regularly check your radar system to stay aware of nearby vessels and obstacles.

Use Your AIS : Ensure your AIS functions correctly to broadcast your boat’s information to others in the area.

Operate a Watch : Always maintain a proper lookout, using visual and auditory methods, to stay aware of your surroundings.

Follow Local Regulations : Follow local boating rules and guidelines, including speed limits, navigation channels, and restricted areas.

Properly selecting, installing, and maintaining radar reflectors are crucial for small vessels navigating busy waterways and challenging weather conditions. By enhancing their visibility to other ships, radar reflectors significantly contribute to maritime safety and collision avoidance.

It is essential for recreational boaters and other small vessel operators to be aware of the requirements and recommendations set forth by SOLAS and the MCA and to choose the most suitable radar reflector or radar target enhancer for their specific circumstances. 

However, it is essential to remember that radar reflectors should not replace the need to operate a watch and navigate cautiously. By combining effective radar reflectors with safe navigation practices, small vessel operators can significantly reduce the risk of an accident and enhance sea safety.

A radar reflector is a device that enhances a boat’s visibility on other vessels’ radar systems by reflecting radio waves more effectively.

Radar reflectors are crucial for small boats because they make the boat more visible on radar systems, reducing the risk of collisions and accidents.

There are two main types: passive (corner, octahedral, and spherical) and active radar reflectors.

Consider factors like size, shape, placement, mounting options, and local regulations when selecting a radar reflector.

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Ocean Navigator

Radar reflector performance

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Because sailboats are notoriously poor radar targets, many sailors purchase a passive radar target enhancer (RTE), or radar reflector, to improve the vessel’s signature. How effective are these devices? For my recent book Radar Reflectors for Cruising Sailboats, I developed a method for describing and comparing RTEs. We’ll use it here to compare a few of the common passive radar reflectors on the market.

The strength of the radar signal reflected by a target is related to the radar cross section, or RCS. A larger RCS means the target will be detected at greater range, by lower power radar sets, in poorer weather conditions and more consistently. Consistent detection is especially desirable for collision avoidance because your vessel may be missed by a human operator and it may be ignored by automatic radar plotting aid software.

Radar reflectors cannot be completely described by a single RCS value. Rather, the RCS depends on the orientation of the radar reflector relative to the radar that is painting it. The orientation, or aspect, is simply the relative bearing of the radar from your vessel and the elevation angle of the line of sight to the radar relative to your deck. For a radar dead abeam, the elevation angle is your vessel’s angle of heel; for a radar dead ahead or astern, the elevation angle is your vessel’s pitch angle. A complete characterization of a radar reflector includes the RCS at all bearing angles, or azimuths from 0° to 360° and all elevations angles from -90° to +90° – although a smaller range of elevation usually is adequate.

Polar diagram

Radar cross section is commonly presented in a polar diagram. To obtain polar diagram data, the target is mounted on a rotating platform in an indoor radar range (radar anechoic chamber). A carefully calibrated radar system records the strength of the reflected signal as the platform rotates through 360° and graphs RCS against azimuth.

A polar diagram describes the RTE as long as it is vertical (elevation is zero). It does not represent performance if the RTE is tilted away from the vertical, as would be the case if the RTE is mounted on a vessel that is rolling or pitching in a seaway or simply sailing at a constant angle of heel. Consequently, single polar diagrams do not provide enough information to compare radar reflectors that are to be used on sailboats. Manufacturers sometimes provide several polar diagrams for different tilt angles, but this is not common practice and, even when the data are available, it is not easy to visualize performance given multiple polar diagrams.

Analytic RCS diagram The data visualization problem may be overcome by a single quantized, color-coded RCS diagram showing the data from many polar plots. Such a diagram is easier to interpret than multiple individual polar plots, but obtaining enough anechoic chamber data to produce a detailed diagram is costly and time consuming. My solution was to develop analytic models of all common RTE, calculate RCS over the entire range of aspect, and present the results in a color-coded analytic RCS diagram. An analytic approach is possible because all RTE are made of a few basic elements that have been analyzed and described thoroughly in the technical literature. Basic elements can be combined analytically to represent any RTE if the physical structure is known. The color-coded diagram allows one to visualize RCS over a large range of aspect and compare RTE with a common display. Included here is the analytic RCS diagram for a Davis EchoMaster 121/2-inch octahedral, mounted in the normal orientation. RCS magnitude is quantized so only six colors are needed. I have used green to indicate an RCS greater than 10 m2, yellow between 5 and 10, dark blue between 2.5 and 5, light blue between 1.25 and 2.5, purple between 0.625 and 1.25, and red less than 0.625 m2. The 2:1 spacing of contours allows six colors to cover a large range of RCS. Essentially, green is good. RCS decreases progressing from yellow to purple, and red means you probably won’t be detected. Examining the diagram, the major feature is the eight circular areas of green, yellow and dark blue centered at about 35� elevation. These correspond to the eight corner cube pockets that are the main element of the octahedral. The narrow vertical and horizontal green areas come into play at certain aspects. This diagram is interpreted as follows. The main response consists of eight cones oriented about 35� above and below horizontal. There is good response at very small elevation angles, roughly �4�, but even at zero elevation, there are small ranges of azimuth for which the response is red. Consequently, this RTE would be marginally useful as long as the vessel on which it is mounted does not heel more than 4�, or heels about 35�. For heel angles between a few degrees and about 20� there is a lot of red. You would present a very small RCS to the radar, and you probably would not be detected at most azimuth angles. There is more red than green or blue over the range of aspect encountered by monohull sailboats, so the octahedral, in normal orientation, may not be the best choice. On the other hand, there is a lot of green and blue for elevation angles less than 4� so this would not be a bad choice for a vessel that does not tilt much. RCS is not the only criterion for selecting an RTE. Cost, mounting, weight and windage aloft, power consumption, and reliability also are important, as is the application, i.e., collision avoidance, search and rescue, fixed navigation aids. Even the type of vessel and expected sailing conditions are important for collision avoidance because of different ranges of heel angle. However, the analytic RCS diagram succinctly summarizes the variation of RCS with aspect and enables one to compare RTE on a common basis.

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By Ocean Navigator

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Ouzo report: Radar reflector test results published

  • May 9, 2007

MAIB / Qinetiq results available to download

The Performance investigation of marine radar reflectors carried out by the defense research agency, Qinetiq in the aftermath of the loss of the 25ft yacht Ouzo last summer, has finally been published today.

Click here to download the MAIB / Qinetiq radar reflector report

The results, which were delayed due to consultations with radar reflector manufacturers can be summarized as follows:

*None of the nine units tested meets the the forthcoming draft ISO8729 [2] standard, which requires a 7.5 square-metre radar cross section (RCS) at angles of heel up to 20° for yachts, although one of the units was compliant to the angle stipulated for powerboats and catamarans of 10°

*Only one of the units tested claimed to be compliant with the existing standard ISO8729 – however, this performance was not recreated in the Qinetiq tests.

*Several of the units tested did conform with the current ISO8729, despite not holding ‘type-approval’.

What was Ouzo carrying? Ouzo is known to have been carrying a ‘six-inch octahedral radar reflector’ although the MAIB report of 12 April does not state what make.

The MAIB report states: ‘Although any radar reflector is better than none, the type of reflector fitted to Ouzo can theoretically produce a reasonable peak increase in the RCS but, in practice, its overall performance is poor, and it is now evident that at best there was only a 50% probability that the ship would have been able to detect Ouzo on the radar at close range.’

The Qinetiq report states that short-range visibility (less than 2.6NM) of a radar reflector is very poor with an RCS of one metre squared. The current ISO8729 only requires 0.625 square metres RCS at all angles of heel up to 20°.

It continues: ‘For radar reflectors with an RCS of two square metres and above the probability of being tracked inside 2NM increases significantly’

Items on test The report tested nine products ranging in price from £16 (Plastimo 16″) to £2,000 (POLARef 11) in a lab, simulating 16 knots of windspeed and swells of 5ft:

Plastimo 16″ Octahedral & 4″ tube Davis Echomaster Viking Tri-lens Large & Standard Echomax 230 Firdell Blipper 210-7 Sea-Me POLARef 11

The reflector height was 4m with the Bridgemaster radar scanner at 30m. The reflectors were tested for radar cross section (RCS) – measured in square metres – at angles of heel from 0° to 20°.

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To See and Be Seen

In the course of running the scientific evaluation of the tri-lens radar reflector featured in practical sailor's august 15, 2001 issue, dick honey, former senior principal scientist at sri, sent us the following thoughts on the nature of radar reflection and detection at sea..

yacht radar reflector test

The subject of radar reflectors around yacht club bars is usually dominated by an almost infinite variety of anecdotal tales, most of which have little or no bearing on whether you, in a small boat, will be seen by a large ship at sea. One of the many questions related to being seen by another radar is, “How large is my boat’s radar cross section (RCS), with and without a radar reflector?” 

To See and Be Seen

This is a very difficult question to answer, and, of course, would be different for every individual boat. Because X-band radar wavelengths are just a little over an inch long, and a typical sailboat is hundreds or thousands of inches long, the sailboat’s RCS pattern might resemble the quills on the back of a porcupine, i.e., a vast number of narrow interference lobes caused by scattering from a variety of objects such as winches, blocks, stoves, even people. Some of the lobes might be very intense but extremely narrow, such as the specular or mirror-like reflection from a straight mast or flat metal surface, but most would be randomly sized and spaced.

Some comprehensive measurements addressing the practical implications of this were published in the UK publication, Yachting Monthly (October 1995), describing the findings of Professor Graham King, head of Systems Engineering Research at the Southampton Institute. These findings were summarized in an editorial reply to a letter to Practical Sailor, June 1, 1996, pgs. 3-4. One of Professor King’s conclusions was that “within a two-mile range, most vessels over 20 feet are likely to be just as visible without a reflector as with one. However, that level of visibility might in itself be so marginal, especially in poor weather and sea conditions, as to be of little use for collision avoidance between small craft and commercial shipping.”

Another result of these trials was that, “at a range of one mile a man in a stable 4.8m rigid inflatable without a reflector would actually give around 2.5 square meter (sm) reflection in good weather, with a further 1.5 sm coming from a small outboard when fitted—a total figure similar to the average results recorded from most small craft reflectors on the level.”

And finally, to quote Prof. King directly, “It would be quite reasonable in cases of rundown for a manual radar watch keeper to claim target invisibility in real-world sea conditions.”

It is clear from the above observations, plus the carefully measured data from a variety of commercially available radar reflectors, that even the best of them could provide only a marginal improvement in the RCS that already exists from the average sailboat.

Are they worth it? This depends on how you want to weigh the various tradeoffs, such as cost, weight and windage aloft, chafe, ease of storage, and so on.

Ultimately, we suspect that future solutions may involve the use of an active Radar Target Enhancer (RTE) that will return a much greater signal to a radar than any reasonably sized passive reflector could ever do, yet do so with minimal average power consumption and, by clever design, with minimal interference among multiple radar systems. We know of two RTEs that are in use today, the Ocean Sentry from Pains Wessex and the ActivEcho from Serpe-Iesm. There is also an entirely different product called a Search and Rescue Transponder (SART) which transmits a RACON-like 12-pulse radar distress signal. SARTs must not be used to routinely enhance radar visibility.

Eventually, GPS locations and vessel IDs might even be incorporated into RTE-like products to more precisely locate and identify various targets. But don’t hold your breath!

What then is one to do? Let’s reflect briefly on what must happen if one must rely on being seen by a ship’s radar in time to avoid a potential collision:

1. The ship’s radar must be turned on and working properly. Often on the high seas, a ship’s X-band radar may not even be on, and its S-band radar is likely set for maximum range. After all, it’s more important for them to avoid other large targets!

2. An experienced operator must occasionally pay attention to the display and/or optimize the adjustments, or, even if all of this is automated, somebody must be paying attention.

3. Any initial detection must occur at sufficient range to allow the ship to maneuver accordingly.

In large or breaking seas, all bets are off, and no feasible radar reflector for small craft will reflect a big enough signal to rise above the strong sea clutter. The same can happen in dense fog or rain conditions.

Even in good weather, what is the probability that all of these conditions will be satisfied? The literature is replete with anecdotal stories where one or more of these conditions must not have been satisfied.

In other words, the ball is in your court. Some obvious measures that may help include:

1. Stay clear of shipping lanes as much as possible, especially in poor weather or low-visibility conditions.

2. Maximize your visibility to other radars, just in case someone is paying attention. Multiple reflectors could help and can’t hurt, but the larger the better, and with different orientations to complement their different RCS patterns. Consider using a RTE.

3. Maximize your visibility for visual detection, just in case someone is looking. Masthead strobe lights are very effective. Strictly speaking, these are against the rules, but every ship captain we have spoken to encourages their use on small vessels that are offshore, even in the daytime. If you carry a masthead strobe, be certain also to monitor VHF Channel 16 in case a ship tries to inquire whether your strobe light indicates a request for help. Spreader lights or searchlights on the sails can be very visible in a pinch.

4. In some cases, an occasional call on the VHF may get a response, just in case someone is listening. Even if the bridge watch on a ship doesn’t speak your language, your VHF call, especially if it’s clearly heard offshore, should at least motivate someone to look at the ship’s radar to see who’s out there. Surprisingly, it often seems that no one is listening.

5. Passive radar detectors are another good option. They alert you to the presence of an active radar in the area, which is often a welcome wake-up call. They consume little power and the installation is simple, but obviously only help if the other vessel’s radar is on.

6. Equipping your own vessel with radar is the best option if you can afford the power consumption, the cost, and the installation complications. Modern radars designed for small craft are quite small, light, and have helpful power-saving/watch modes. It’s much easier for a radar on a small boat to pick up a big ship than vice versa.

As above, sea clutter can be a problem, further complicated by the violent motions of a small vessel in high seas. Targets won’t hold still from scan to scan on a radar screen on a small vessel, but range measurements will.

The burden is primarily upon the small craft to avoid collisions at sea, especially in heavy weather. Depending on ships to be able to detect you on radar, even if you have a radar reflector, has never been a good bet. The small vessel is better able to detect the ship than vice versa, and the small vessel is better able to perform the necessary maneuvers that may be required to avoid a collision.


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Updated guidance on fitting a radar reflector to boats under 15m

  • Katy Stickland
  • November 15, 2022

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has updated its guidance and is urging all owners of boats under 15m/49.2ft to fit a radar reflector

A radar reflector from the top of a yacht

All boats less than 15m/49.2ft and under 150 gross tonnage should permanently carry a radar reflector. according to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) has updated its guidance on the use of a radar reflector on boats less than 15m/49.2ft and under 150 gross tonnage. 

Marine Guidance Notice (MGN) 349 states that a radar reflector or radar target enhancer should be permanently installed, and offer the largest radar cross section (RCS) as practical for the vessel.

Commercial ships use radar equipment that operates in the ‘X’ band (9GHz) and the ‘S’ band (3GHz).

A radar reflector on a recreational boat should have a RCS of at least 7.5m² at X-Band and 0.5m² at S-band when mounted at a minimum height of four metres above sea level.

Just because you have a radar reflector, doesn't mean you will be seen. Always keep a proper lookout, advises the MCA. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

Just because you have a radar reflector, doesn’t mean you will be seen. Always keep a proper lookout, advises the MCA. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

The RCS should be maintained over a total angle of at least 280° of azimuth and not below this level over any angles greater than 10° (a null).

There should not be a distance of less than 20° between nulls.

For power driven vessels and sailing vessels designed to operate with little heel, such as a catamaran or trimaran, this performance should be maintained through angles of (athwartships) heel 10° either side of vertical.

For other vessels, the radar reflector should maintain this performance over 20° either side of vertical. Any radar reflector meeting the above requirements should comply with ISO 8729-1:2010.

If the radar reflector meeting these standards are unsuitable for boats under 15m LOA, then owners are recommended to fit a radar reflector to the older standard EN ISO 8729:1998, which has been retained for type approval under the Marine Equipment Regulations (MSN 1874) for radar reflectors for lifeboats and rescue boats.

It should be noted that Echomax has emailed Yachting Monthly to say it has contacted the MCA to express concern over their mention of ISO 8729-1:2010, as currently, there are no known passive radar reflectors which meet ISO 8729-1:2010 which has a volume limit of 0.5m3 and weight limit of 5kg.

In response, the MCA said:

‘The notice will not be amended as it can’t be confirmed 100% that there are no products of this type currently on the market, but it is highly likely during our research that this is the case.

In reference to 3.1.3 of the amended MGN:

‘3.1.3 However the above standard results in a large reflector that may be unsuitable for vessels under 15m overall length, in which case Owners and skippers of craft less than 15m overall length are recommended to consider fitting a radar reflector to the older standard EN ISO 8729:1998, which has been retained for type approval under the Marine Equipment Regulations (MSN 1874) for radar reflectors for lifeboats & rescue boats.’

EN ISO 8729:1998 remains in force until a product is placed on the market approved to ISO 8729:1.’

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The MCA is also advising skippers that in certain circumstances, their boat may still not be readily visible on ships’ radars, even when fitted with a radar reflector or a radar target enhancer, and that this does not replace the need for a proper lookout at all times.

MGN 349 was initially published following the deaths of three sailors aboard the Sailfish 25, Ouzo overnight on 20-21 August 2006.

Rupert Saunders, 36, Jason Downer, 35, and James Meaby, 36, all died when their yacht was sunk six miles south of St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight after a collision with the P&O ro-ro ferry Pride of Bilbao .

The mast of a yacht

Radar reflectors should be mounted at a minimum height of four metres above sea level. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

A report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch ( MAIB ) found that Ouzo had not shown up on the ferry’s radars and the bridge team on Pride of Bilbao had not seen the yacht until is was very close ahead.

The officer on watch made a last minute manoeuvre to avoid Ouzo and believed he had been successful, although he did not contact the yacht crew to confirm this, and instead relied on seeing, what he thought, was the yacht’s stern light.

The MAIB concluded that the Pride of Bilbao had collided with Ouzo , or passed so close that the yacht had been swamped or capsized by the ferry’s wash. The yacht was never recovered.

The MAIB did commission a report by QinetiQ to carry out research into a number of common types of radar reflectors to compare performance with International Standards (ISO 8729).

The recommendations included:

  • Using a Sea-Me radar reflector where power is available;
  • Making sure the RCS of the radar reflector was a minimum of 2 m²
  • Not using a 4” or 2” tube reflector due to its poor performance.

Details of MGN 349 can be found here.

Details of the full MAIB report into the sinking of Ouzo and the QinetiQ Radar Reflector report can be found here.

Please note this article was updated on 23 November 2022 after YM was contacted by Echomax about the updated MGN 349 guidance, to inform us that there are currently no known passive radar reflectors which meet ISO 8729-1 which has a limit of 0.5m3 and 5kg.

Enjoyed reading Updated guidance on fitting a radar reflector to boats under 15m?

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