sonar (sōˈnär) [key], device used underwater for locating submerged objects and for submarine communication by means of sound waves. The term sonar is an acronym for so und na vigation r anging. The main component of sonar equipment is an electroacoustic transducer that is in direct contact with the water. It is suspended from the hull of a ship or on a cable from a low-flying helicopter. The transducer converts electric energy into acoustic energy (thus acting as a projector), much as does a loudspeaker, and converts acoustic energy into electric energy (serving as a hydrophone), as does a microphone. A pulse of electric energy vibrates the diaphragm of the projector, sending sound waves through the water. These waves are concentrated into a sound beam, which scans the water when the projector is rotated. After the sound wave is emitted, the projector is converted into a hydrophone and listens for an echo. The cycle is repeated periodically. A returning echo is converted into an electric current by the transducer and may be interpreted (for range, bearing, and the nature of the target) aurally or by a cathode-ray tube, as is done with radar signals. The various types of sonar in use can be put into three classes: direct listening, communications, and echo ranging. In direct listening, also known as passive sonar, the object under observation generates the sounds that are received. In communications and echo ranging the sonar must generate its own signals. Sonar operates in the 10- to 50-kilocycle acoustical frequency range. It is used for communication between submerged submarines or between a submarine and a surface vessel, for locating mines and underwater hazards to navigation, and also as a fathometer, or depth finder. Sonar is widely used by commercial fishermen for locating shoals of fish. Research has indicated that sonar used for echo ranging can affect some dolphins and porpoises and especially beaked whales. In some instances it may startle them and cause them to surface too rapidly, producing a disorder similar to decompression sickness (in which nitrogen bubbles form in body tissues); this may be linked to strandings of those species.

See J. W. Horton, Fundamentals of Sonar (1957); D. G. Tucker, Underwater Observation Using Sonar (1966).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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