So just because we are here, living in a world that’s full of sensors, thanks to the modern era, does not mean that we have one that is right for a specific job. In particular, one of them that we have been lacking is that of a radar system which can detect obstacles as well as aircrafts hundreds of meters out and still manage to fit so well within a very small drone. Cool huh?
Even though as it seems, the laws of physics had prevented it — however all hail to the Echodyne which successfully made it work. Moreover, now, after the hard work, it finally ready to put out its first product. Here is why Echodyne pocket-sized radar may be the next must-have tech for drones.
When it comes to proper navigation and doing jobs efficiently, there is nothing better than a drone; it can successfully avoid all the obstacles coming in its path. Now if you think that you have a drone which does not tend to realize when it is near an object, it does, or if cars do not know whether or not they are far from the other car, they do. The real problem is that the moment you think about flying upwards, you start worrying about all the things that could happen. There are small airplanes and helicopters; commercials jets are also there at a maximum height which is something to worry about the moment you step a little more higher. You have to consider options every time you go high up and accommodate things very effectively, which are the phenomena of detecting and avoiding? At this range, no optical, lidar or ultrasonic sensor in the world is reliably effective.
When it comes to the answer, radar is a general answer, but there are two issues: firstly, there is a decent phased array radar which is going to be pretty big. Secondly, we are talking six figures out of the gate. Neither of these things is very friendly to small drones or small companies.
Echodyne’s radar has a fractional size and price, but it also performs many of the similar functions as other drones. Some are better than big ones. So how is it possible? With the help of rethinking the entire system using the metamaterials.
Let’s not get into the depth of things that are way too technical but here is the deal. Phased-array radars tend to use a grid of antennas that work by the emission of radio waves in the precisely defined patterns; they can steer a radar beam in the desired direction. If you do this multiple times per second, you may as well scan the beam over a field of view without moving the device itself. It is a must-have the capability for all of the high altitude drones, which are needed for scanning a large area in front of them for the oncoming air traffic, and they really must have them, says the FAA.
The main trouble about these devices is that these devices have proven to be very hard to miniaturize after it reaches a certain point because of the number of electronics involved. The antennas also need to be of a certain size to work within a given wavelength; their controllers also take up space, there is also processing involved for the received data, and so on.
The Echodyne uses something that is called a metamaterial for creating a phased array on a much, much smaller scale. Instead of using dozens of individual antennas, the device uses a surface which is carefully engineered in a 3D pattern which lets the beams to be propagated in a much similar manner, but there are more precision and lower power. These amazing features are the reason why Echodyne pocket-sized radar may be the next must-have tech for drones.
This allows for a sweep across a maximum of 120 degrees in the horizontal direction and 80 degrees in vertical (azimuth and elevation, if we are aeronautical), there is a field of view which is roughly equivalent to that of a human’s. This is not an accident; these systems are meant to be a replacement for the vigilance of a pilot, or an onboard or even a remote. An effective replacement for the human visual acuity and search capability is a prerequisite for an autonomous flight outside the line of sight of the operator.
Inside that window, the MESA (metamaterial electronically scanned array) can detect a small plane like Cessna at about 2 kilometers out, a quadcopter-size drone at around 750 meters, as well as a bird at 250 meters.
This capability was seen itself behind the Echodyne headquarters, where, even though one demo drone was stuck in a tree earlier that week because of operator error, another drone had participated in a live demo. Flying out well beyond our ability to see it, and beyond lidar or the optical detection range. However, it was clear as day on the radar display: there were a set of dots that blinked their way outwards, with stationary dots which indicated the trees as well as all other obstacles.
Echodyne had tested this capability late in the last year. It has done its best to show just why Echodyne pocket-sized radar may be the next must-have tech for drones.
It takes the beam almost one second to sweep the whole area out, but because the beam can be directed at a will, if it detects an object, it can use extra resources for tracking it more closely. With the help of this, we can keep one eye on the sky while we watch a suspicious drone which has some pulses. Focusing on this also lets the radar determine its velocity, Echodyne claims, down to within 2 meters per second.
It has accomplished all of this in a package which tends to be about the size of a couple of the iPad Minis, which weighs a pound and a half and draws only 35 watts of power. Systems with comparable capabilities might be as low as ten or twenty times bigger and more power-hungry.
The only real problem here is that this range is much shorter than the larger systems and they might see a plane that is about 12 km out. Howeve,r as the Echodyne pointed out to us, the quadcopters are not flying at 300 knots; it is more important to locate much closer things, has more active threats and can detect obstacles and with Echodyne pocket-sized radar you can get it done.
At a total of ten grand, you will be buying a MESA for mounting to your bike; however, if you are Amazon or Uber or anyone looking into the commercial applications for drones, it is more than a little enticing.
1. Plug in 2. Profit
Have you started to see how this can change the game? Prosumer drones can be given the capability of sensing a craft that is far larger and far more expensive thus making them smarter as well as safer to operate. This type of boost opens up a whole new array of possibilities.
The CEO Eben Frankenberg said that they had phone calls from every application you can think of. He added that for the first time, you could get the equivalent of a teeny phased radar, the people are surprised saying oh my God “I can do this now!’” This could be one of the reason why Echodyne pocket-sized radar may be the next must-have tech for drones.
Smaller drones tend to see better and bigger, the craft they have can pop a few on as well as see more, and in a new industry, counter-drone operations also get a cheap, easy-to-deploy detection system.
A phased or a moving radar array is quite clunky and expensive, like about seven figures expensive.
A MESA drone-detection setup can cost around $20-30,000, it can weigh a quarter as much as others, and could run for a week on a car battery.
MESA still needs evaluation by the FCC. Also, the FAA is still working on the rules which will govern this unmanned aircraft outside of sight. However, given the depth in both price as well as performance between these sensors and their incumbents, it looks like almost a foregone conclusion that the MESA-type sensors which are larger, smaller, or customized, will be all but mandatory for drones and detection stations in the coming future.
Now you know just how Echodyne pocket-sized radar may be the next must-have tech for drones.