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Echodyne radar
Echodyne’s radar antenna system is about the size of a paperback book but can track drones from a distance that’s 10 times as long as a football field. (Echodyne Photo)

Kirkland, Wash.-based Echodyne, a radar-focused startup backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, is seeking the Federal Communications Commission’s expedited approval to have its drone-detecting radar system used in an experiment planned during the NFL’s Super Bowl in Atlanta.

The request, made in an application to the FCC, came to light today in a report published by The Guardian.

The experiment would reportedly compare Echodyne’s low-cost, miniaturized radar platform against other detection systems in the “no-drone zone” that the Federal Aviation Administration has set up for Sunday’s Super Bowl football contest between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams

The company is one of several Seattle-area spinoffs that take advantage of solid-state metamaterials technology pioneered at Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Wash. In addition to Gates, Echodyne’s investors include Vulcan Capital, Madrona Venture Group, NEA, Lux Capital and the Kresge Foundation.

Echodyne says its ground-based, flat-panel radar antennas can detect and track piloted aircraft flying as far as 2 miles (3 kilometers) away, and can monitor small drones at a distance of 0.6 miles (1 kilometer). It already has tested the system in locales including Alaska, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia.

The Guardian quotes documents filed in support of Echodyne’s application as saying that two of the company’s experimental radar antennas would be set up near Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta to “alert security personnel, including federal officers, of any unidentified drone activity during Super Bowl LIII.”

The tests would be conducted under the guidance and direction of the FBI, according to The Guardian.

Approvals for the test were apparently held up due to the partial government shutdown. Sunday’s application seeks license approval under a procedure known as special temporary authority, which is typically reserved for emergencies or other urgent conditions.

In the application, Echodyne said the FCC’s expedited approval was required “in order to meet a partner’s testing schedule.”

Echodyne did not identify its partner, either in the application documents or in this email message responding to GeekWire’s inquiry:

“Without prior approval, we can’t comment on specific customer applications or deployments. In general, however, situational awareness of drone activity surrounding airports, stadiums, outdoor events, critical national infrastructure, industrial complexes, government facilities, military bases, etc. is a growing concern for federal, state and local agencies. That’s true here at home as well as internationally.

“We have invented a novel way to build high-performance radars which are ideally suited for these types of applications and are pleased to be supplying these to law enforcement and security providers.”

The Guardian said an FBI representative declined to comment on Echodyne’s system but gave assurances that “law enforcement has assets in place so we can protect the public” from drone threats. The FBI said it couldn’t respond immediately to GeekWire’s follow-up request for comment.

Drone interference has become a big deal lately, due to flight disruptions experienced at London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports as well as at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. Over the weekend, a Russian tourist was reportedly arrested for flying a drone iaround Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.

In the United States, drones are prohibited in the vicinity of airports, and the FAA is putting special restrictions on airplane and drone flights near Mercedes-Benz Stadium starting on Thursday. Pilots and drone operators who violate the rules during the Super Bowl’s prime time could face civil penalties in excess of $20,000, plus potential criminal prosecution.

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