Echodyne Readies Lightweight Radar for Small Drones, Other Uses

As aviation regulators and the drone industry work out rules for the quadcopters and other small unmanned aircraft systems that may someday deliver packages—among scores of other commercial missions—one thing is clear: For the drones to reach the potential their backers envision, they will need to fly beyond the pilot’s line of sight.

Radar is among a suite of sensors that could help detect objects a ground-based pilot cannot see, and eventually enable autonomous drones. Bellevue, WA-based Echodyne believes its unique, lightweight metamaterials-based radar is the answer for the fast-growing drone industry.

The company, a spinout from patent aggregator and invention laboratory Intellectual Ventures, backed by Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, among others, announced Monday a prototype radar development kit geared for manufacturers of small to midsize commercial drones, and plans for a commercial detect-and-avoid radar system by the end of the year.

The K-band radar it’s developing would be suited for a small unmanned aircraft system (UAS)—under 55 pounds, flying below 500 feet.

An Echodyne metamaterials radar antenna.

An Echodyne metamaterials radar antenna.

As we’ve reported, Echodyne is betting on metamaterials—essentially tiny metal shapes that interact with radio waves in specific ways, printed on circuit boards and controlled with software—to upend the economics of the radar business.

The radar dev kit the company is making available for testing now weighs in at about 1.8 pounds, leaving plenty of payload available on larger drones of the under-55 pound class for deliveries, cameras, and other sensors. Integrating it into the airframe could make the radar lighter still, because it wouldn’t require its own housing.

“We think it’s ideally sized,” Echodyne CEO Eben Frankenberg says. “Of course, the smaller the better, but very acceptable size for that kind of aircraft.”

Echodyne copter 3-2Echodyne is staying the course it set to commercialize the metamaterials technology portfolio held by Intellectual Ventures, which has launched three companies to bring it to market for applications including radar (Echodyne), satellite antennas (Kymeta, also based in Bellevue), and advanced imaging (Evolv Technologies in Boston).

Last summer, Echodyne released an X-band radar aperture—just the scanning antenna, about the size of a computer keyboard, and the driver for the antenna that points it in a particular direction—to show other radar makers what was possible with its technology, Frankenberg says. “That’s the part that’s our most secret sauce.”

The K-band radar the company has in a development kit now is substantially smaller and lighter—a bit bigger than an iPhone 6 plus—making it ideal for detect-and-avoid radar systems for small drones, Frankenberg says. In addition to a K-band aperture, the development kit includes the radar transceiver, which generates and amplifies the outbound radar signal, and receives, amplifies, and processes the inbound signal.

The output of the radar is a point cloud or object track information—data showing an object moving within the radar’s field of regard: 120 degrees in azimuth, and 80 degrees in elevation, with a range of 3 kilometers.

It will be up to UAS manufacturers and other system integrators to take that data and plug it into a detect-and-avoid system that may combine it with other sensor data and alert the drone operator of a hazard, or apply it directly to an avoidance algorithm.

The development kits are being manufactured by a partner and assembled by Echodyne, which now has about 28 employees (roughly double its staff of a year ago), and a half-dozen job openings. For the commercial DAA radar, Frankenberg says the manufacturing partner—which he declined to name, but says has the capability to scale up dramatically—would build almost all of it.

The drone business is growing fast. Echodyne cites a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forecast for 2016 commercial sales of small UASs in excess of 600,000, growing to 2.7 million by decade’s end. The FAA is racing to craft new rules for how drones may operate in commercial airspace.

Frankenberg attended an FAA symposium last month in Florida at which regulators made clear that “they are very eager and interested in trying to open up the airspace,” he says. “They understand the importance of that. They want to be a contributor to that, and not just being viewed as holding things up.”

Frankenberg

Frankenberg

He says regulators are looking to collaborate with industry, particularly on technology that can enable safe drone operations.

“Detect-and-avoid is one of the key issues they pointed out at the conference,” Frankenberg says. “It may be the most key issue to opening up the airspace to beyond visual line of sight.”

When will the FAA settle on regulations? Frankenberg won’t venture to guess, but he does expect Echodyne to have a commercial metamaterials radar on the market well in advance of any rules being finalized.

Frankenberg says Echodyne is receiving interest in the technology from many quarters. In addition to drones, it could find applications in the automotive industry, where self-driving cars will require full sensor suites, and in security applications, including drone detection systems that could use radar to identify incoming drones and train optical cameras on them.

Echodyne made the announcement at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s Xponential conference, which opens today in New Orleans. The four-day industry event focuses on drone applications in industries including oil and gas, agriculture, energy and utilities, and defense and security. Keynote speakers include FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta and vice president of Amazon’s Prime Air drone delivery unit Gur Kimchi.

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