As more and more drones clutter the skies systems that can detect, and avoid other airborne obstacles become more crucial
Echodyne, a US based materials Radar company, want to see a day when radar equipped drones fill the skies and deliver your packages and they’ve created a hand sized radar to help bring that dream closer to reality.
Their first test drone took to the air last month in Texas for a series of tests aimed at finding out how well the Bellevue based company’s miniaturized detect-and-avoid radar could spot obstacles and other aircraft and the results seemed to confirm they’re on the right track. But they might face stiff competition from companies like Sydio who instead of radar have turned to Artificial Intelligence and Machine Vision to solve the same problem.
“It’s great to see our technology performing in real world field tests exactly as designed,” said Eben Frankenberg, Echodyne’s founder and CEO.
Echodyne’s technology takes advantage of metamaterials to produce flat-panel scanning arrays that don’t have any moving parts and in an interview Frankenberg said the first units should become commercially available early next year at an initial price of $9,995. Let’s face it though, with that price tag, as good as the technology might be, it’s going to be too steep a price for the consumer drone companies who are arguably the companies that have the greatest need for this kind of solution, but for those companies flying Group 3 or 4 drones, such as the US military or Uber and their partners, the price point might be palatable. But as the sales volume ramps up, “the price will come down into the low singles of thousands,” he said.
The miniature radar units, known as MESA-DAA devices can detect and track objects as far away as 3 km (1.8 miles) and the unit that was tested on an eight-rotor octocopter drone last month was Echodyne’s MESA-K-DEV, a developer-kit radar with a 500m (0.3-mile) detection range.
The first-of-its-kind flight tests were conducted over the course of several days in cooperation with a drone manufacturer at a privately owned field, complete with barbed-wire fences, Frankenberg said. He declined to identify the manufacturer, citing confidentiality agreements.
The drone hovered just below the 400-foot altitude limit for small unmanned aerial systems. From that height, it was able to detect the fences and the trees below, as well as a second drone that was sent aloft with a reflector to simulate the radar profile of a Cessna airplane.
Setting up a system that allows small drones to detect and avoid obstacles is one of the key steps that will have to be put in place before the Federal Aviation Administration gives the go ahead for delivery drones to fly beyond their operators’ visual line of sight.
Until that system is in place, it’s highly unlikely that Amazon and other companies will be able to turn drone delivery into a viable, scalable business.
Frankenberg noted that several detect-and-avoid schemes have been proposed for drones, including systems that rely on ground-based radar and ADS-B broadcast navigation.
“Our belief is, you’d be way better off if you had radars on the drones,” he said.
“If you think about how you would cover Seattle with a set of ground radars, for example,” Frankenberg said, “and you want to fly over all the hills you have and all the trees you have and in the urban canyons where you’re between buildings, there are going to be tons and tons of shadows where you’re not going to have any idea whether something’s there or not.”
It’s not clear exactly when the FAA will draw up its detect-and-avoid requirements for small commercial drones but when the regulators are ready, Echodyne is hoping manufacturers will install MESA-DAA units on radar-ready drones.
“We’re not feeding it into the navigation yet,” Frankenberg said, “I think early on, that’s what we’ll rely on either the drone maker or the operator to do. … What we’ll do is just feed them all the tracking data.”
He noted that Echodyne’s radar units aren’t just for drones.
“This developer’s kit also works great for autonomous cars,” Frankenberg said, “and we have a number of people who are playing with it for exactly that use case. We also have some people who are interested in it for marine applications. So it’s definitely getting a lot of attention, because this is the first time anybody has brought high-performance, electronically scanning radar into the commercial market.”
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