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Time-domain reflectometer for cable fault detection
Signal transmitted through and reflected from a discontinuity

A time-domain reflectometer (TDR) is an electronic instrument that uses time-domain reflectometry to characterize and locate faults in metallic cables (for example, twisted pair wire or coaxial cable).[1] It can also be used to locate discontinuities in a connector, printed circuit board, or any other electrical path. The equivalent device for optical fiber is an optical time-domain reflectometer.


A TDR measures reflections along a conductor. In order to measure those reflections, the TDR will transmit an incident signal onto the conductor and listen for its reflections. If the conductor is of a uniform impedance and is properly terminated, then there will be no reflections and the remaining incident signal will be absorbed at the far-end by the termination. Instead, if there are impedance variations, then some of the incident signal will be reflected back to the source. A TDR is similar in principle to radar.


Generally, the reflections will have the same shape as the incident signal, but their sign and magnitude depend on the change in impedance level. If there is a step increase in the impedance, then the reflection will have the same sign as the incident signal; if there is a step decrease in impedance, the reflection will have the opposite sign. The magnitude of the reflection depends not only on the amount of the impedance change, but also upon the loss in the conductor.

The reflections are measured at the output/input to the TDR and displayed or plotted as a function of time. Alternatively, the display can be read as a function of cable length because the speed of signal propagation is almost constant for a given transmission medium.

Because of its sensitivity to impedance variations, a TDR may be used to verify cable impedance characteristics, splice and connector locations and associated losses, and estimate cable lengths.

Incident signal[edit]

TDRs use different incident signals. Some TDRs transmit a pulse along the conductor; the resolution of such instruments is often the width of the pulse. Narrow pulses can offer good resolution, but they have high frequency signal components that are attenuated in long cables. The shape of the pulse is often a half cycle sinusoid.[2] For longer cables, wider pulse widths are used.

Fast rise time steps are also used. Instead of looking for the reflection of a complete pulse, the instrument is concerned with the rising edge, which can be very fast.[3] A 1970s technology TDR used steps with a rise time of 25 ps.[4][5][6]

Still other TDRs transmit complex signals and detect reflections with correlation techniques. See spread-spectrum time-domain reflectometry.

Example traces[edit]

These traces were produced by a time-domain reflectometer made from common lab equipment connected to approximately 100 feet (30 m) of coaxial cable having a characteristic impedance of 50 ohms. The propagation velocity of this cable is approximately 66% of the speed of light in a vacuum.

These traces were produced by a commercial TDR using a step waveform with a 25 ps risetime, a sampling head with a 35 ps risetime, and an 18-inch (0.46 m) SMA cable.[7] The far end of the SMA cable was left open or connected to different adapters. It takes about 3 ns for the pulse to travel down the cable, reflect, and reach the sampling head. A second reflection (at about 6 ns) can be seen in some traces; it is due to the reflection seeing a small mismatch at the sampling head and causing another "incident" wave to travel down the cable.


Consider the case where the far end of the cable is shorted (that is, terminated into zero ohms impedance). When the rising edge of the pulse is launched down the cable, the voltage at the launching point "steps up" to a given value instantly and the pulse begins propagating down the cable towards the short. When the pulse hits the short, no energy is absorbed at the far end. Instead, an opposing pulse reflects back from the short towards the launching end. It is only when this opposing reflection finally reaches the launch point that the voltage at this launching point abruptly drops back to zero, signalling the fact that there is a short at the end of the cable. That is, the TDR has no indication that there is a short at the end of the cable until its emitted pulse can travel down the cable at roughly the speed of light and the echo can return up the cable at the same speed. It is only after this round-trip delay that the short can be perceived by the TDR. Assuming that one knows the signal propagation speed in the particular cable-under-test, then in this way, the distance to the short can be measured.

A similar effect occurs if the far end of the cable is an open circuit (terminated into an infinite impedance). In this case, though, the reflection from the far end is polarized identically with the original pulse and adds to it rather than cancelling it out. So after a round-trip delay, the voltage at the TDR abruptly jumps to twice the originally-applied voltage.

Note that a theoretical perfect termination at the far end of the cable would entirely absorb the applied pulse without causing any reflection. In this case, it would be impossible to determine the actual length of the cable. Luckily, perfect terminations are very rare and some small reflection is nearly always caused.

The magnitude of the reflection is referred to as the reflection coefficient or ρ. The coefficient ranges from 1 (open circuit) to -1 (short circuit). The value of zero means that there is no reflection. The reflection coefficient is calculated as follows:

Where Zo is defined as the characteristic impedance of the transmission medium and Zt is the impedance of the termination at the far end of the transmission line.

Any discontinuity can be viewed as a termination impedance and substituted as Zt. This includes abrupt changes in the characteristic impedance. As an example, a trace width on a printed circuit board doubled at its midsection would constitute a discontinuity. Some of the energy will be reflected back to the driving source; the remaining energy will be transmitted. This is also known as a scattering junction.


Time domain reflectometers are commonly used for in-place testing of very long cable runs, where it is impractical to dig up or remove what may be a kilometers-long cable. They are indispensable for preventive maintenance of telecommunication lines, as TDRs can detect resistance on joints and connectors as they corrode, and increasing insulation leakage as it degrades and absorbs moisture, long before either leads to catastrophic failures. Using a TDR, it is possible to pinpoint a fault to within centimetres.

TDRs are also very useful tools for technical surveillance counter-measures, where they help determine the existence and location of wire taps. The slight change in line impedance caused by the introduction of a tap or splice will show up on the screen of a TDR when connected to a phone line.

TDR equipment is also an essential tool in the failure analysis of modern high-frequency printed circuit boards with signal traces crafted to emulate transmission lines. By observing reflections, any unsoldered pins of a ball grid array device can be detected. Short circuited pins can also be detected in a similar fashion.

The TDR principle is used in industrial settings, in situations as diverse as the testing of integrated circuit packages to measuring liquid levels. In the former, the time domain reflectometer is used to isolate failing sites in the same. The latter is primarily limited to the process industry.

In level measurement[edit]

In a TDR-based level measurement device, the device generates an impulse that propagates down a thin waveguide (referred to as a probe) – typically a metal rod or a steel cable. When this impulse hits the surface of the medium to be measured, part of the impulse reflects back up the waveguide. The device determines the fluid level by measuring the time difference between when the impulse was sent and when the reflection returned. The sensors can output the analyzed level as a continuous analog signal or switch output signals. In TDR technology, the impulse velocity is primarily affected by the permittivity of the medium through which the pulse propagates, which can vary greatly by the moisture content and temperature of the medium. In many cases, this effect can be corrected without undue difficulty. In some cases, such as in boiling and/or high temperature environments, the correction can be difficult. In particular, determining the froth (foam) height and the collapsed liquid level in a frothy / boiling medium can be very difficult.

Used in anchor cables in dams[edit]

The Dam Safety Interest Group of CEA Technologies, Inc. (CEATI), a consortium of electrical power organizations, has applied Spread-spectrum time-domain reflectometry to identify potential faults in concrete dam anchor cables. The key benefit of Time Domain reflectometry over other testing methods is the non-destructive method of these tests.[8]

Used in the earth and agricultural sciences[edit]

A TDR is used to determine moisture content in soil and porous media. Over the last two decades, substantial advances have been made measuring moisture in soil, grain, food stuff, and sediment. The key to TDR's success is its ability to accurately determine the permittivity (dielectric constant) of a material from wave propagation, due to the strong relationship between the permittivity of a material and its water content, as demonstrated in the pioneering works of Hoekstra and Delaney (1974) and Topp et al. (1980). Recent reviews and reference work on the subject include, Topp and Reynolds (1998), Noborio (2001), Pettinellia et al. (2002), Topp and Ferre (2002) and Robinson et al. (2003). The TDR method is a transmission line technique, and determines apparent permittivity (Ka) from the travel time of an electromagnetic wave that propagates along a transmission line, usually two or more parallel metal rods embedded in soil or sediment. The probes are typically between 10 and 30 cm long and connected to the TDR via coaxial cable.

In geotechnical usage[edit]

Time domain reflectometry has also been utilized to monitor slope movement in a variety of geotechnical settings including highway cuts, rail beds, and open pit mines (Dowding & O'Connor, 1984, 2000a, 2000b; Kane & Beck, 1999). In stability monitoring applications using TDR, a coaxial cable is installed in a vertical borehole passing through the region of concern. The electrical impedance at any point along a coaxial cable changes with deformation of the insulator between the conductors. A brittle grout surrounds the cable to translate earth movement into an abrupt cable deformation that shows up as a detectable peak in the reflectance trace. Until recently, the technique was relatively insensitive to small slope movements and could not be automated because it relied on human detection of changes in the reflectance trace over time. Farrington and Sargand (2004) developed a simple signal processing technique using numerical derivatives to extract reliable indications of slope movement from the TDR data much earlier than by conventional interpretation.

Another application of TDRs in geotechnical engineering is to determine the soil moisture content. This can be done by placing the TDRs in different soil layers and measurement of the time of start of precipitation and the time that TDR indicate an increase in the soil moisture content. The depth of the TDR (d) is a known factor and the other is the time it takes the drop of water to reach that depth (t); therefore the speed of water infiltration (v) can be determined. This is a good method to assess the effectiveness of Best Management Practices (BMPs) in reducing stormwater surface runoff.

In semiconductor device analysis[edit]

Time domain reflectometry is used in semiconductor failure analysis as a non-destructive method for the location of defects in semiconductor device packages. The TDR provides an electrical signature of individual conductive traces in the device package, and is useful for determining the location of opens and shorts.

In aviation wiring maintenance[edit]

Time domain reflectometry, specifically spread-spectrum time-domain reflectometry is used on aviation wiring for both preventive maintenance and fault location.[9] Spread spectrum time domain reflectometry has the advantage of precisely locating the fault location within thousands of miles of aviation wiring. Additionally, this technology is worth considering for real time aviation monitoring, as spread spectrum reflectometry can be employed on live wires.

This method has been shown to be useful to locating intermittent electrical faults.[10]

Multi carrier time domain reflectometry (MCTDR) has also been identified as a promising method for embedded EWIS diagnosis or troubleshooting tools. Based on the injection of a multicarrier signal (respecting EMC and harmless for the wires), this smart technology provides information for the detection, localization and characterization of electrical defects (or mechanical defects having electrical consequences) in the wiring systems. Hard fault (short, open circuit) or intermittent defects can be detected very quickly increasing the reliability of wiring systems and improving their maintenance.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^  This article incorporates public domain material from the General Services Administration document "Federal Standard 1037C".
  2. ^ 1983 Tektronix Catalog, pages 140–141, the 1503 uses "1/2-sine-shaped pulses" and has a 3-foot resolution and a range of 50,000 feet.
  3. ^ 1983 Tektronix Catalog, pages 140–141, the 1502 uses a step (system rise time less than 140 ps), has a resolution of 0.6 inch and a range of 2,000 feet.
  4. ^ 1983 Tektronix Catalog, page 289, S-52 pulse generator has a 25-ps risetime.
  5. ^ S-6 Sampling Head, Instruction Manual, Beaverton, OR: Tektronix, September 1982  First printing is 1982, but copyright notice includes 1971.
  6. ^ 7S12 TDR/Sampler, Instruction Manual, Beaverton, OR: Tektronix, November 1971 
  7. ^ Hamilton Avnet part number P-3636-603-5215
  8. ^ C. Furse, P. Smith, M. Diamond, "Feasibility of Reflectometry for Nondestructive Evaluation of Prestressed Concrete Anchors[permanent dead link]," IEEE Journal of Sensors, Vol. 9. No. 11, Nov. 2009, pp. 1322 - 1329
  9. ^ Smith, P., C. Furse, and J. Gunther, 2005. "Analysis of spread spectrum time domain reflectometry for wire fault location Archived 2011-02-12 at WebCite". IEEE Sensors Journal 5:1469–1478.
  10. ^ Furse, Cynthia, Smith, P.,Safavi, Mehdi, and M. Lo, Chet. "Feasibility of Spread Spectrum Sensors for Location of Arcs on Live Wires Archived 2010-05-01 at". IEEE Sensors Journal. December 2005.
  11. ^ G.Millet, S.Bruillot, D.Dejardin, N.Imbert, F.Auzanneau, L.Incarbone, M.Olivas, L.Vincent, A.Cremzi, S.Poignant, 2014."Aircraft Electrical Wiring Monitoring System"

Further reading[edit]

  • Hoekstra, P. and A. Delaney, 1974. "Dielectric properties of soils at UHF and microwave frequencies". Journal of Geophysical Research 79:1699–1708.
  • Smith, P., C. Furse, and J. Gunther, 2005. "Analysis of spread spectrum time domain reflectometry for wire fault location". IEEE Sensors Journal 5:1469–1478.
  • Waddoups, B., C. Furse and M. Schmidt. "Analysis of Reflectometry for Detection of Chafed Aircraft Wiring Insulation". Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Utah State University.
  • Noborio K. 2001. "Measurement of soil water content and electrical conductivity by time domain reflectometry: A review". Computers and Electronics in Agriculture 31:213–237.
  • Pettinelli E., A. Cereti, A. Galli, and F. Bella, 2002. "Time domain reflectometry: Calibration techniques for accurate measurement of the dielectric properties of various materials". Review of Scientific Instruments 73:3553–3562.
  • Robinson D.A., S.B. Jones, J.M. Wraith, D. Or and S.P. Friedman, 2003 "A review of advances in dielectric and electrical conductivity measurements in soils using time domain reflectometry". Vadose Zone Journal 2: 444–475.
  • Robinson, D. A., C. S. Campbell, J. W. Hopmans, B. K. Hornbuckle, Scott B. Jones, R. Knight, F. Ogden, J. Selker, and O. Wendroth, 2008. "Soil moisture measurement for ecological and hydrological watershed-scale observatories: A review." Vadose Zone Journal 7: 358-389.
  • Topp G.C., J.L. Davis and A.P. Annan, 1980. "Electromagnetic determination of soil water content: measurements in coaxial transmission lines". Water Resources Research 16:574–582.
  • Topp G.C. and W.D. Reynolds, 1998. "Time domain reflectometry: a seminal technique for measuring mass and energy in soil". Soil Tillage Research 47:125–132.
  • Topp, G.C. and T.P.A. Ferre, 2002. "Water content", in Methods of Soil Analysis. Part 4. (Ed. J.H. Dane and G.C. Topp), SSSA Book Series No. 5. Soil Science Society of America, Madison WI.
  • Dowding, C.H. & O'Connor, K.M. 2000a. "Comparison of TDR and Inclinometers for Slope Monitoring". Geotechnical Measurements—Proceedings of Geo-Denver2000: 80–81. Denver, CO.
  • Dowding, C.H. & O'Connor, K.M. 2000b. "Real Time Monitoring of Infrastructure using TDR Technology". Structural Materials Technology NDT Conference 2000
  • Kane, W.F. & Beck, T.J. 1999. "Advances in Slope Instrumentation: TDR and Remote Data Acquisition Systems". Field Measurements in Geomechanics, 5th International Symposium on Field Measurements in Geomechanics: 101–105. Singapore.
  • Farrington, S.P. and Sargand, S.M., "Advanced Processing of Time Domain Reflectometry for Improved Slope Stability Monitoring", Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Conference on Tailings and Mine Waste, October, 2004.
  • Smolyansky, D. (2004). "Electronic Package Fault Isolation Using TDR". Microelectronics Failure Analysis. ASM International. pp. 289–302. ISBN 0-87170-804-3. 

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