BELLEVUE, Wash. – Radar and aircraft go together like hand and glove, but what do you do when the aircraft is a commercial drone that weighs less than a fully loaded suitcase? Bellevue-based Echodyne is taking the wraps off a radar system that’s just a step up from smartphone size but provides advanced capabilities for drones and autonomous vehicles.
Echodyne’s technology is known as Metamaterials Electronically Scanning Array, or MESA. It takes advantage of beam-directing metamaterials to perform radar scanning without moving parts, and without the complicated electronics that phased-array systems require. The system’s small size and big capability hit the sweet spot for small unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, which could soon be used for package deliveries.
“No radar has existed that anyone could think of to put on a small UAV,” Eben Frankenberg, Echodyne’s founder and CEO, told GeekWire. “That’s where we’re super-excited to come into play.”
Echodyne is making its MESA-K-DEV radar available as a developer’s kit: It measures about 8.6 inches long by 3 inches wide by 1 inch thick (22 by 7.5 by 2.5 centimeters), and weighs less than 2 pounds (820 grams). That includes not just a radar chip, but the entire system, including processors and an integrated K-band transceiver. The unit requires about 20 watts’ worth of DC power.
The kits will be provided to developers as loaners for $5,000 a month, Frankenberg said.
He said MESA devices can be tailor-made for the kinds of detect-and-avoid systems that small drones would probably need if the Federal Aviation Administration clears them to fly beyond the operator’s line of sight. That’s thought to be a key requirement for the drone delivery systems that Amazon and other companies are working on.
“Detect-and-avoid is a critical shortcoming … that we hope to solve,” Frankenberg said. By the end of the year, Echodyne plans to release its own product that will weigh less than the MESA-K-DEV unit, and will be capable of detecting obstacles and other aircraft out to a range of almost two miles (3 kilometers).
The radar can also be adapted for all-weather security systems to fend off drones, as well as in advanced navigation systems for self-driving cars, Frankenberg said. “You can potentially replace a bunch of radars with fewer, higher-performing radars,” he said.
MESA radar technology is the centerpiece for privately held Echodyne, which was spun out from Intellectual Ventures in 2014 with an initial investment of $15 million from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Madrona Venture Group and other backers (including Vulcan Capital, the investment firm headed by Microsoft’s other co-founder, Paul Allen).
Echodyne’s first product, an X-band radar unit, came out last December.
Gates is among the investors in another company that takes advantage of metamaterials: Redmond-based Kymeta Corp. uses metamaterials in a range of flat-panel satellite antennas designed for use in cars, on ships and on airplanes.