The pulse repetition frequency (PRF) is the number of pulses of a repeating signal in a specific time unit, normally measured in pulses per second. The term is used within a number of technical disciplines, notably radar.
In radar, a radio signal of a particular carrier frequency is turned on and off; the term "frequency" refers to the carrier, while the PRF refers to the number of switches. Both are measured in terms of cycle per second, or hertz. The PRF is normally much lower than the frequency. For instance, a typical World War II radar like the Type 7 GCI radar had a basic carrier frequency of 209 MHz (209 million cycles per second) and a PRF of 300 or 500 pulses per second. A related measure is the pulse width, the amount of time the transmitter is turned on during each pulse.
The PRF is one of the defining characteristics of a radar system, which normally consists of a powerful transmitter and sensitive receiver connected to the same antenna. After producing a brief pulse of radio signal, the transmitter is turned off in order for the receiver units to hear the reflections of that signal off distant targets. Since the radio signal has to travel out to the target and back again, the required inter-pulse quiet period is a function of the radar's desired range. Longer periods are required for longer range signals, requiring lower PRFs. Conversely, higher PRFs produce shorter maximum ranges, but broadcast more pulses, and thus radio energy, in a given time. This creates stronger reflections that make detection easier. Radar systems must balance these two competing requirements.
Using older electronics, PRFs were generally fixed to a specific value, or might be switched among a limited set of possible values. This gives each radar system a characteristic PRF, which can be used in electronic warfare to identify the type or class of a particular platform such as a ship or aircraft, or in some cases, a particular unit. Radar warning receivers in aircraft include a library of common PRFs which can identify not only the type of radar, but in some cases the mode of operation. This allowed pilots to be warned when an SA-2 SAM battery had "locked on", for instance. Modern radar systems are generally able to smoothly change their PRF, pulse width and carrier frequency, making identification much more difficult.
Sonar and lidar systems also have PRFs, as does any pulsed system. In the case of sonar, the term pulse repetition rate (PRR) is more common, although it refers to the same concept.
Electromagnetic (radio or sound) waves are conceptually pure single frequency phenomena while pulses may be mathematically thought of as composed of a number of pure frequencies that sum and nullify in interactions that create a pulse train of the specific amplitudes, PRRs, base frequencies, phase characteristics, et cetera (See Fourier Analysis). The first term (PRF) is more common in device technical literature (Electrical Engineering and some sciences), and the latter (PRR) more commonly used in military-aerospace terminology (especially United States armed forces terminologies) and equipment specifications such as training and technical manuals for radar and sonar systems.
The reciprocal of PRF (or PRR) is called the pulse repetition time (PRT), pulse repetition interval (PRI), or inter-pulse period (IPP), which is the elapsed time from the beginning of one pulse to the beginning of the next pulse. The IPP term is normally used when referring to the quantity of PRT periods to be processed digitally. Each PRT having a fixed number of range gates, but not all of them being used. For example, the APY-1 radar used 128 IPP's with a fixed 50 range gates, producing 128 Doppler filters using an FFT. The different number of range gates on each of the five PRF's all being less than 50.
Within radar technology PRF is important since it determines the maximum target range (Rmax) and maximum Doppler velocity (Vmax) that can be accurately determined by the radar. Conversely, a high PRR/PRF can enhance target discrimination of nearer objects, such as a periscope or fast moving missile. This leads to use of low PRRs for search radar, and very high PRFs for fire control radars. Many dual-purpose and navigation radars—especially naval designs with variable PRRs—allow a skilled operator to adjust PRR to enhance and clarify the radar picture—for example in bad sea states where wave action generates false returns, and in general for less clutter, or perhaps a better return signal off a prominent landscape feature (e.g., a cliff).