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Echodyne's Eben Frankenberg
Echodyne CEO Eben Frankenberg shows how one of the company’s flat-panel radar units might fit onto a drone. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen are among the investors putting another $29 million into Echodyne, the Intellectual Ventures spin-out that’s developing low-cost, miniaturized radar systems for drones and self-driving cars.

Echodyne founder and CEO Eben Frankenberg said the Series B funding round was led by New Enterprise Associates, or NEA, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

Gates, Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group, the Kresge Foundation and Allen’s Vulcan Capital are among the investors following up on their participation in 2014’s $15 million Series A round, Frankenberg told GeekWire. He declined to say how the new investment affects the valuation of the company, based in Bellevue, Wash.

“The new investment will be used to continue developing the technology,” Frankenberg said.

Like other spin-outs from Intellectual Ventures, Echodyne’s technology is based on the wave-bending properties of metamaterials. Circuits based on metamaterials can allow for the construction of flat-panel radar devices that match the performance of larger, more expensive phased array antennas.

“The good news for us is that this radar is a breakthrough technology,” Frankenberg said.

He said that when the Series A investment was made, it was hard to predict when the applications that could make use of the technology would hit the market.

“Fast-forward two and a half years … and those markets are on top of us,” Frankenberg said.

One application involves systems small enough to be installed on drones to scan for obstacles and nearby aircraft. Recent tests show that Echodyne’s smartphone-sized system can track a Cessna plane at a distance of up to 3 kilometers (2 miles), a DJI Phantom drone at 750 meters (half a mile), and a palm-sized drone at 200 meters (650 feet), Frankenberg said.

He argued that Echodyne’s system provides an all-weather solution for collision avoidance that other technologies, such as camera-based computer vision and laser-scanning lidar systems, can’t match.

“The new radar is now complete,” Frankenberg said. “We’ve started shipping units to first customers, and it’s working exactly as designed.”

He declined to identify the customers, citing confidentiality requirements.

Echodyne’s radar unit can also be used on automobiles to beef up their obstacle detection capabilities, which will become increasingly important for the rise of autonomous vehicles. One advantage derived from metamaterials technology is that the radar can scan up and down as well as side to side.

Although Frankenberg declined to name the carmakers who are interested in doing deals, he said “the phone is absolutely ringing off the hook.”

Echodyne MESA-DAA radar unit
Echodyne’s MESA-DAA radar unit is set up beside an iPhone for a size comparison. (Echodyne Photo)

Other potential applications have to do with security – for example, installing ground-based radar detectors to watch out for drones, intruders or even prison escapees. Echodyne already has a contract from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to test its system for border surveillance.

“It’ll detect someone walking through the desert at a kilometer and a half [a mile], and they can see a truck at probably 4 kilometers-ish [2.5 miles],” Frankenberg said. “So that’s very interesting to them.”

Looking ahead, Frankenberg expects to use Echodyne’s newly acquired millions to build out the full platform of hardware and computer vision software, optimize a version of the system for automotive applications, and expand the company’s production capability.

“We’re absolutely moving from proof of concept and first product generation to ‘now it’s time to scale the business.’ And the market has also come our direction in a big way,” he said.

“We didn’t know how long it would be before people were serious about flying drones long distances for commercial reasons, or how serious people were about autonomous cars and trucks. But certainly in the last two and a half years, people are way more serious about it. So that’s all great as well.”

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