Echodyne adds small, affordable radar to counter-UAS technology

By Patrick C. Miller | July 18, 2018

Fresh off its Game of Drones win as part of Dedrone’s counter-UAS team, Washington-based Echodyne played an instrumental role in the competition by using its miniaturized version of the phased-array radar technology employed by the military.

Echodyne’s beam-steering radar not only detects small UAS, but also has applications for drone detect-and-avoid systems and can provide high-resolution, 3-D situational awareness data for autonomous vehicles.

“Our focus is on a new type of radar,” said Eben Frankenberg, Echodyne founder and CEO. “The gold standard of radar for the last 30 to 40 years has been phased-array radars. Unfortunately, they’re incredibly expensive and so they’ve only been available to the military for higher-end applications. They start at a few hundred thousand dollars and go quickly into the million-dollar range.”

Military phased-array radars are not only expensive, but they are also large. Echodyne’s radars are the size of a thick Kindle tablet.

“Our big innovation is that we came up with a way to make something that works very similarly to a phased-array, but at pennies on the dollar,” Frankenberg said. “For the first time, we can build high-performance, all-electronic radar systems at a commercial price point. No commercial markets have been able to afford them before.”

Echodyne, a startup company that’s received funding from Bill Gates, has developed two versions of its radar systems. The first is a drone collision-avoidance radar, designed for mounting on a drone. It can help clear the airspace out in front of the aircraft for beyond-line-of-sight operations.

The second is a ground-to-air radar for detecting drones. “If you want to clear airspace in a local area to make sure no aircraft flies into a zone where you’re operating UAS, you could use our radars to do that,” Frankenberg said. “But you can also use our radars to detect drones that are flying toward a perimeter—if you want to make sure you’re aware of those.”

This was the application for which Echodyne’s radar was used when the team led by Dedrone won first place last month at ThunderDrone’s “Game of Drones” outdoor demonstration at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. For the competition, Dedrone provided radio frequency (RF) sensors, Suarehead provided acoustic sensors and Battelle provided jammers.

Echodyne’s radars cost $30,000 each. For the competition, the company provided four radars to provide hemispherical coverage.

“A lot of drone detection companies and counter-UAS companies are starting to include our radar with their overall multi-layered system,” Frankenberg said. “You’ve got RF detection, you’ve got acoustic detection, you’ve got cameras and now you can have radar, which is probably the most accurate in tracking at range—and certainly in all weather. You don’t need light; you don’t need clear skies. You can have clouds and rain and still be tracking perfectly fine.”

However, as good as Echodyne’s technology is at detecting and tracking drones, Frankenberg said laws are needed to allow the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to bring down drones when necessary.

Scott Straka, Echodyne’s engineering product manager, said there are two bills moving through Congress that would empower DHS, Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Justice with the ability to conduct drone interdiction.

“To really make counter-UAS effective—to be able to protect stadiums, to be able to protect critical infrastructure, to understand what’s going on with perimeters, whether it’s border or industrial facilities—you really need that ability to do interdiction to get after a noncooperative aircraft,” Straka said.

Frankenberg is optimistic that Congress will pass legislation dealing with the issue this year. “Now that we know the UAV is there, what can we do about it? I think that’s the missing piece,” he explained.