Ever see the news reports about the "World War II RADAR technology"? The headlines are usually provided by the FAA or other vendors when talking about NextGen technologies. RADAR has significantly improved since World War II. It is much more reliable, more consistent, and more accurate. The output now is mostly digital, and requires little adjusting.
All RADAR systems work by sending out a radio signal, and listening for that signal to bounce off a target, and timing the round trip of the signal. A passive RADAR signal is one where dish sends out a signal, and listens for the return. The passive RADAR message can only measure distance from the dish. Knowing the orientation of the antenna when the target distance was measured will allow the operator to know the range and azimuth of the target relative to the antenna.
The radio signal goes about the speed of light through the air, or about one foot per nanosecond, or about 5ms per mile, and remembering to double that for the round trip, will allow the RADAR system to determine the distance.
The RADAR dish is used to focus the transmitted signal, as well as the return signal. The pointy part near the bottom of the dish is the antenna for both the transmitter and receiver. The dish is a parabolic reflector, with the antenna at the focus point. The antennas are aimed at the dish. While the antenna does a good job of focusing the signal, it still goes out in a cone shape.
RADAR will detect various targets. The metal targets reflect the radio signals well. Other material will reflect at different levels. Most aircraft have metal somewhere, including tube and fabric, composite and wooden aircraft. Water also reflects radio signals. A large blob of moisture will show up on RADAR as a target. The processor on the RADAR unit will separate the blobs of moisture from the metal things. The blobs of moisture will be called weather, and the other metal objects will be considered primary targets.
Many dishes have a secondary surveillance antenna on them as well. Secondary surveillance is used to listen for the transponder that is on many aircraft. The transponder on the aircraft will transmit the aircraft altitude, and some other data. The transponders will automatically transmit when they hear the RADAR interrogation signal.
Mostly there are two types of RADAR in use for civil aviation in the US, enroute and tracon. Enroute RADAR, or ARSR covers a radius of about 250 miles, and the dish rotates in about 12 seconds. Tracon RADAR covers about 60 miles, and the dish rotates in about 4.7 seconds. Both RADAR types can feed computers, that allow different people to see different views of the same data.
Since the RADAR signal go goes out in a cone shape, the exact position of the aircraft is less accurate the farther the target is from the RADAR antenna. The tracon RADAR will be more accurate than the ARSR RADAR since it is turning faster, and only is looking at shorter distances.
The RADAR signal can be blocked by buildings and terrain. Buildings and terrain can also reflect signals. Reflected signals can make the targets appear to be farther away. If an aircraft is opposite terrain relative to the antenna, it won't be picked up by the RADAR. Enroute charts will have a MSA altitude indicating the lowest altitude the RADAR can allow the controllers to see the aircraft.
The RADAR units will output various channels, weather, secondary, and primary target data. This data will be collected by computers, and be correlated to determine a track. Correlating the secondary target with the primary data will allow a track to know an aircraft speed, altitude and location. Correlating the signals will also need to remove bogus signals, like reflections, or smallish blobs of weather.
Newer technologies called multilateration is another way to find an aircraft. The multilateration will rely on the transponder on the aircraft. The ground station will have multiple receivers in known locations. A transmitter in the area will send out a signal, the transponder will detect the signal, and respond. The ground stations will measure the time it took to receive the signal,and the difference will tell the range and azimuth of the signal. The signal will contain the altitude.
Building RADAR sites can be expensive, building multilateration sites can be significantly less. If some acreage is available, the multilateral station can be a good choice to cover mountainous terrain, rather than building new RADAR sites in the mountains. The output of the multilateration system can feed the same computer systems that are used for RADAR displays.
Modern RADAR systems are quite flexible. Much different than the "World War II technology" the newscasters present. RADAR also has the advantage of not requiring any technology on the aircraft to work. Should an aircraft have a system failure, or an operator turn off a transponder. The FAA would like to decommission RADAR, but I believe long term, they won't completely. DOD and other organizations will require their existence.
Is that helpful?