A RACON (RAdar and beaCON) is a radar transponder commonly used to mark maritime navigational hazards.
When a racon receives a radar pulse, it responds with a signal on the same frequency which puts an image on the radar display. This takes the form of a short line of dots and dashes forming a Morse character radiating away from the location of the beacon on the normal plan position indicator radar display. The length of the line usually corresponds to the equivalent of a few nautical miles on the display.
Their use for purposes other than aids to navigation (AtoN) is prohibited, and they are used to mark:
- lighthouses and navigation buoys
- navigable spans under bridges such as
- to identify centre lines and turning points
- offshore oil platforms and other structures
- temporary, new and uncharted hazards (with a Morse character “D”)
- as leading line racons
Their characteristics are defined in the ITU-R Recommendation M.824, Technical Parameters of Radar Beacons (RACONS). Racons usually operate on the 9320 MHz to 9500 MHz marine radar band (X-band), and most also operate on the 2920 MHz to 3100 MHz marine radar band (S-band). Modern racons are frequency-agile; they have a wide-band receiver that detects the incoming radar pulse, tunes the transmitter and responds with a 25 microsecond long signal within 700 nanoseconds.
Older racons operate in a slow sweep mode, in which the transponder sweeps across the X-band over 1 or 2 minutes. It only responds if it happens to be tuned to the frequency of an incoming radar signal at the moment it arrives, which in practice means it responds only around 5% of the time.
To avoid the response masking important radar targets behind the beacon, racons only operate for part of the time. In the United Kingdom, a duty cycle of about 30% is used — usually 20 seconds in which the racon will respond to radar signals is followed by 40 seconds when it will not, or sometimes 9 seconds on and 21 seconds off (as in the case of the Sevenstones Lightship). In the United States a longer duty cycle is used, 50% for battery-powered buoys (20 seconds on, 20 seconds off) and 75% for on-shore beacons.