Economy, Sci & Tech

New Drone Technology Backed by Bill Gates

New drone technology could radically enhance autonomous vehicles.
New drone technology could radically enhance autonomous vehicles.

Echodyne, a radar array startup with investors including Bill Gates, his Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, and Seattle’s own Madrona Ventures, just made what the company considers a landmark announcement for the future of self-driving vehicles.

Basically, Echodyne’s big breakthrough product is the Metamaterial Electronically Scanning Array (MESA) — a radar arrays that’s small enough to mount on a drone — like the ones Amazon or Google might use for their drone delivery programs — but that the company says is more powerful than the kind one would  find on existing self-driving cars and drones, Business Insider reported. 

Echodyne announced the successful test of a system that lets drones mounted with MESA automatically detect and evade oncoming aircraft and other obstacles even when it would otherwise be too far away, too cloudy, or too dark for a human operator to see.

Drones mounted with Echodyne’s system flew several missions over a few days.

The important part is that the radar can pick up a decoy made to appear on radar like an oncoming small aircraft or other small drones, even when the camera can’t see them on visual, and steer around it. 

“I can see that drone, and I can see another aircraft,” says Echodyne founder and CEO Eben Frankenberg.

This is a big deal, Frankenberg says, because it opens the door for drones to operate further away from human operators. Other startups are working on this problem, but Echodyne says theirs is the first to successfully complete real-world tests.

The US’ FAA requires a drone pilot essentially be within eyeshot of the vehicle they’re flying, which is no good if you are Amazon and you are trying to send drones all over town. But with the ability to do automatic collision detection, a drone does not need a human pilot to be paying attention in order to dodge hazards. 

Right now, Echodyne is focused on drones, because that’s the biggest market with the most need for this kind of always-aware radar scanner.

But eventually, he says, it could come back down to earth: Self-driving cars from the likes of Uber and Google use a combination of radar and lasers to scan the road, but they lack a certain ability to “see” elevation.

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