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Eben Frankenberg at Echodyne
Echodyne CEO Eben Frankenberg holds one of the company’s radar units at Echodyne’s headquarters in Bellevue, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Echodyne’s drone-sized radar system has received a vote of confidence – and a $118,721 award – from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The award, made through the department’s Silicon Valley Innovation Program, is designed to help the U.S. Border Patrol enhance its ability to monitor activities at the nation’s borders. The potential applications range from tracking down bad guys to search-and-rescue operations.

An award of a little more than $100,000 may not sound like a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a welcome boost for Echodyne – a startup headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., that counts Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen among its investors.

“The great thing is we get the opportunity to take the commercial product we’re developing, do a few modifications and have them test it,” Echodyne CEO Eben Frankenberg told GeekWire today.

Echodyne’s detect-and-avoid radar units are designed to be mounted on small unmanned aerial systems (also known as sUAS) and autonomous vehicles for navigational purposes. But they can also be installed in fixed positions for border security surveillance, including drone detection.

The company is a spin-out from Intellectual Ventures, and takes advantage of specially designed metamaterials to produce flat-panel scanning arrays that have no moving parts. The palm-sized radar system successfully went through its first series of air-to-air flight tests over a privately owned farm field in Texas in October.

Echodyne contends that radar is more reliable than competing technologies when it comes to enhancing situational awareness amid a wide variety of flying conditions. (A similar argument could be made for self-driving cars.)

The award to Echodyne is one of three that support sUAS development for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The other two awards are $200,000 to Goleta Star, a Los Angeles-based startup with expertise in video radar technology; and $199,960 to Shield AI, a San Diego-based startup with expertise in artificial intelligence as well as reconnaissance and surveillance systems.

“The technologies being developed by these innovative companies have the potential to substantially increase an agent’s and officer’s operational awareness and lead to safer operations,” Kevin McAleenan, deputy commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said in a news release.

Two additional Silicon Valley Innovation program awards went to Texas-based Factom, which builds applications based on the blockchain platform for data security; and Massachusetts-based Tamr, which specializes in tools that simplify data analytics.

Factom and Tamr are expected to build additional capability into the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Travel Assessment System for passenger data screening and analysis.

The five companies are “the first members of what we are calling our ‘Charter Class’ of performers” in the innovation program, McAleenan said. Additional awards are expected to be announced early next year.

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