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What is SONAR?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 16, 2024

SONAR is an abbreviation for SOund Navigation And Ranging, a navigational technique that uses sound to gather information about the surrounding environment. There are two types — active and passive — and they are both widely used, depending on the situation. Passive SONAR involves listening for sounds, such as noises generated by passing ships and submarines. When a ship uses active SONAR, it emits a pulse of sound in one of a range of frequencies and then listens for the echo.

Passive SONAR has been used for centuries. Scientists in the 1400s wrote about listening to underwater sounds through tubes. It may not have been extensively used for navigation, but it sowed the seeds for the development of active SONAR. During the First World War, several nations studied the properties of sound and developed early active SONAR to make shipping and naval warfare more safe. This technique takes advantage of hydroacoustics, a series of properties which govern how sound moves underwater.

When a ship uses active SONAR, it emits a pulse from a transducer located along the hull. The electrical impulse from the ship is translated into sound by the transducer, which typically reverts to passive mode to listen for the echo of the sound. Upon receiving the echo, the operator can gather information about hazards in the water ahead, ocean depths, and other ship traffic. The pulses are emitted at a range of frequencies, from infrasonic, or too low to be heard by the human ear, to ultrasonic, too high to be within human hearing range. Ultrasonic sonar is highly accurate at short distances.

In sophisticated systems, SONAR can almost draw an underwater picture, providing information about the type of materials on the ocean floor, for example. Civilians use this technology to navigate, look for interesting objects on the ocean floor, and locate schools of fish. The military uses it to gain an advantage in underwater warfare.

Like other navigation systems, SONAR is not completely fail safe. It can interfere with marine animals that use echolocation, and when multiple ships are in the same area, they can interfere with each other. When using passive SONAR, a skilled operator is needed to distinguish between a wide assortment of items that can cause underwater sound. The ship itself can also interfere with its own SONAR, generating engine noise, abnormal water currents, and similar disruptions.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By pahsun81 — On Jan 23, 2012

On a piano, what note is a sonar pulse?

By anon212976 — On Sep 09, 2011

why can't there be a real time screen in front of the diver, using laser or sonar to show him exactly what is there in the worst conditions, but like a virtual screen that shows without the bad visibility?

By burcinc — On Feb 14, 2011

@anamur-- You're right. Divers wouldn't be able to do the job if its a large body of water. They use sidescan sonars in those circumstances. It works well and there are portable versions which just needs a car battery to power up. It's the best option for emergencies and fast searches.

By serenesurface — On Feb 13, 2011

What kind of sonar do they use if an object or a victim needs to be found? I know underwater divers are able to search in small lakes but what about for a larger body of water? It would take weeks for them to search it.

By fify — On Feb 12, 2011

When we used to under-water diving to search for historic preserves, we used to use a single beam sonar which was rarely accurate. The beam was just too narrow and if there was high waves or underwater hills and such, you just couldn't get a good idea of what was down there. It made our job really hard. Then the multibeam sonar technology came out. The multibeam sends multiple beams for different locations underwater and then puts it all together like puzzle. This way you can see a much larger area and with much more accuracy.

By watson42 — On Jan 31, 2011

Many animals also use a form of biological sonar called echolocation. Like the sonar producers humans use, these animals are able to send out sound waves to figure out where they are, the location of possible prey, and other needed information. Some of the most well known examples of animals that use echolocation re bats and whales.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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