BELLEVUE, Wash. – A radar-equipped drone is blazing a trail for the day when flying robots fill the skies – and deliver your packages.
The drone took to the air last month in Texas for a series of tests aimed at finding out how well Bellevue-based Echodyne’s miniaturized detect-and-avoid radar could spot obstacles and other aircraft. The results confirmed that Echodyne is on the right track.
“It’s great to see our technology performing in real-world field tests exactly as designed,” Eben Frankenberg, Echodyne’s founder and CEO, said in a news release timed to coincide with this week’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management Convention in upstate New York.
Privately held Echodyne is a spin-out from Intellectual Ventures that has attracted backing from Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, as well as Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group and other top-drawer investors.
The company is working on palm-sized radar systems that can be mounted on small delivery drones as well as autonomous vehicles for navigational purposes. Echodyne’s technology takes advantage of metamaterials to produce flat-panel scanning arrays that have no moving parts.
In an interview at the company’s headquarters, Frankenberg said the detect-and-avoid radar units should become commercially available early next year at an initial price of $9,995. As the sales volume ramps up, “the price will come down into the low singles of thousands,” he told GeekWire.
Those units, known as MESA-DAA devices, should be able to detect and track objects as far away as 3 kilometers (1.8 miles). The unit that was tested on an eight-rotor octocopter drone last month was Echodyne’s MESA-K-DEV. That’s a developer-kit radar with a 500-meter (0.3-mile) detection range.
The first-of-its-kind flight tests were conducted over the course of several days in cooperation with a drone manufacturer at a privately owned field, complete with barbed-wire fences, Frankenberg said. He declined to identify the manufacturer, citing confidentiality agreements.
The drone hovered just below the 400-foot altitude limit for small unmanned aerial systems. From that height, it was able to detect the fences and the trees below, as well as a second drone that was sent aloft with a reflector to simulate the radar profile of a Cessna airplane.
Setting up a system that allows small drones to detect and avoid obstacles is one of the key steps that will have to be put in place before the Federal Aviation Administration gives the go-ahead for delivery drones to fly beyond their operators’ visual line of sight.
Until that system is in place, it’s highly unlikely that Amazon and other companies will be able to turn drone delivery into a viable business.
Frankenberg noted that several detect-and-avoid schemes have been proposed for drones, including systems that rely on ground-based radar and ADS-B broadcast navigation.
“Our belief is, you’d be way better off if you had radars on the drones,” he said.
“If you think about how you would cover Seattle with a set of ground radars, for example,” Frankenberg said, “and you want to fly over all the hills you have and all the trees you have and in the urban canyons where you’re between buildings, there are going to be tons and tons of shadows where you’re not going to have any idea whether something’s there or not.”
It’s not clear exactly when the FAA will draw up its detect-and-avoid requirements for small commercial drones. But when the regulators are ready, Echodyne is hoping manufacturers will install MESA-DAA units on radar-ready drones.
“We’re not feeding it into the navigation yet,” Frankenberg said. “I think early on, that’s what we’ll rely on either the drone maker or the operator to do. … What we’ll do is just feed them all the tracking data.”
He noted that Echodyne’s radar units aren’t just for drones.
“This developer’s kit also works great for autonomous cars,” Frankenberg said, “and we have a number of people who are playing with it for exactly that use case. We also have some people who are interested in it for marine applications. So it’s definitely getting a lot of attention, because this is the first time anybody has brought high-performance, electronically scanning radar into the commercial market.”