Image courtesy Echodyne
Echodyne, a radar array startup, just announced the first-ever successful test of a drone Detect and Avoid (DAA) radar, built on top of its Metamaterial Electronically Scanning Array (MESA). The system allows drones to detect and evade oncoming aircraft or other obstacles, even when the pilot can’t see them.
This technology isn’t new—Amazon will likely use this on their automated drone delivery system—but Echodyne claims theirs is far more powerful. Recently, Echodyne mounted its MESA payload onto a small commercial drone, one well-suited for package delivery, infrastructure inspection, and agricultural monitoring, for multiple flights over 400 feet.
Video courtesy of YouTube user Echodyne Corp
The video is a good example of how difficult it can be to visually detect and track small objects like other drones. In the test, the radar was capable of detecting barbed wire fences, which the company claims is equivalent to being able to avoid power lines. The company also successfully tracked a Cessna aircraft, a Beechcraft Bonanza, and an ultralight aircraft.
CEO Eben Frankenberg said in a statement: “Tests like this show that advanced radar can be deployed directly on small commercial UAVs to ensure safe beyond line of sight drone operations. Unlike other sensor technologies such as cameras and LIDARs, radar provides accurate tracking of obstacles at long range across a broad field of view in all types of weather.”
Even though current FAA regulations require that pilots keep their drones “within sight,” in case anything goes wrong, the further a drone is from the pilot, the more difficult it is for them to understand the drone’s most immediate threats. DAA radar can help pilots see small objects when they are otherwise too far away, or when visibility is poor. The company is confident that in the future, any aircraft that flies outside of the pilot’s view—or is entirely automated—will require this kind of DAA technology. Whether or not the FAA decides that the pilot must respond to threats, or can rely on algorithms to make automated corrective movements, is still uncertain.
Echodyne is backed by some heavy-hitters in the tech world, which might give it some real credence in the marketplace. Bill Gates, along with Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital and Madrona Ventures, are all stakeholders. The company also believes this technology could be put to use in self-driving cars—Frankenberg says that current laser-based systems aren’t very good at detecting certain obstacles, like a tree fallen on the road.
The company expects its MESA product will be available to commercial consumers in early 2017.