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Echodyne Releases Small Radar That Could be Big for Drones

Radar could be the answer to beyond visual line-of-sight woes

May 2, 2016

The MESA-K-DEV radar is slightly larger than an iPhone 6 Plus.
Echodyne unveiled a small radar subsystem that could usher in beyond visual line-of-sight drone (BVLOS) flights. Echodyne, a Bellevue, WA-based company founded in 2014, is a privately held company backed by Bill Gates, Madrona Venture Group, Vulcan Capital (Paul Allen’s group), and others.

The radar technology behind the new system is called the metamaterial electronic scanning array (MESA) and is Echodyne’s “secret sauce.” Traditional radar systems use motorized gimbals to steer a radar beam, while Echodyne utilizes metamaterials, engineered materials that require no moving parts, for the MESA system.

MESA is ideal for detect-and-avoid in small drones because it allows electronic scanning radars to be smaller and lighter than traditional phased array radars, says Echodyne CEO and founder Eben Frankenberg.

“We saw this pent-up demand and the forecast for how the commercial [drone] industry is going to take off once beyond visual line-of-sight is approved and thought, ‘Hey, this is a great technology and there’s a big problem that’s not being addressed; we should jump in there and use [MESA],” he says.

Opportunity with drones

On May 2, Echodyne released a fast, electronically scanning radar called MESA-K-DEV that heavily utilizes the company’s MESA technology. This K-band radar is low in cost, size, weight, and power ― and it’s only slightly larger than an iPhone 6 Plus.

The K-band development kit can be used by researchers and companies to test detect-and-avoid, autonomous vehicles, ground based security radar, drone detection, and many other potential applications inside and outside drones.

“We wanted to get this core breakthrough technology out in as many people’s hands as possible across various applications as we could,” says Frankenberg. MESA-K-DEV is available for loan at a cost of $5,000 a month, and Frankenberg says a two to three month time-frame is probable for most testers.

Echodyne is also working on a detect-and-avoid radar system (MESA-DAA), which will be a specialized version of MESA-K-DEV but will be smaller in size and weight. The company’s detect-and-avoid radar is slated for release at the end of 2016 and final specifications aren’t being publicized at this time.

"We know that detect-and-avoid is a fantastic application for this technology," says Frankenberg.
A radar system the size of MESA-K-DEV is shown mounted on an octocopter. Please note this image is photoshopped.
Radar leads the way

Radar has good range, allows for quick scanning, is all-weather, and doesn’t have any nuts or bolts – basically, it’s perfect for small drones.

“Radar is one of the only sensors that measure the positional information of that other object directly,” says Frankenberg. Radar measures positional data directly by sending out a radio wave and then measuring how long it takes for it to come back to the sensor. Lidar, a different type of positional sensor, uses the same concept but emits pulses of light as opposed to radio signals.

Computer vision systems, such as the Fathom by Movidius, and other sense-and-avoid technologies don’t actually measure the distance between the sensor and an object. Instead, they deduce where an object is in relation to the sensor by comparing images stereoscopically — comparing images frame-to-frame.

“Radar and lidar are unique in measuring [distance] directly, which gives you that ground truth that you want,” he says.

But radar trumps lidar in terms of use for detect-and-avoid because radar has much longer range.

“If you’re flying out in the open airspace and you want to make sure you don’t hit a Cessna that’s flying at you at 150 mph, you need good range so you have time to avoid that obstacle,” Frankenberg says. “Radar is the only sensor that gives you those kinds of range opportunities.”

Various companies are racing to create the groundbreaking technology that will enable safe, legal BVLOS flights in the U.S. Only time and extensive testing will tell whether radar, computer vision systems, or some other technology will win.
Featured image: thinkstock.com