Echodyne, a Bellevue-based company, has developed a radar for drones that the Federal Communications Commission recently gave its blessing to. The approval was a long, drawn-out process — it took more than a year — for one very big reason: the radar was the first of its kind. The FCC had virtually nothing to compare it to.

The gold standard in radar is called phased array radar. This is the kind of radar that is mounted on the front of fighter jets. It works by creating a very small spot beam and then sending radio energy down that beam that bounces off objects and comes back, showing what’s out in the surrounding airspace. Phased array radar steers the spot beam around, virtually instantly.

Echodyne, MESA radar

Echodyne’s MESA radar system is small enough to be held in one hand. Courtesy Echodyne.

What Echodyne has done is come up with a method similar to phased array radar but at commercial price points. Instead of costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, it will cost around $20,000. And that cost will come down dramatically once the radar is mass produced. Any casual customer will eventually be able to buy their own personal radar.

Echodyne’s radar, called MESA, which stands for Metamaterials Electronically Scanning Antenna, is about the size of a paperback book. It can be mounted on the front of a drone and will scan the airspace to its front and to its sides three kilometers out. With the advent of using drones for package delivery, and quite likely in the near future, people delivery, as well as long range surveillance and inspection (railroad tracks, pipelines, powerlines), the FCC is not about to let a drone without sensors on board fly beyond where the user can keep an eye on it. Thus, the need for MESA.

Why does radar need to be approved by the FCC? Because the FCC has to approve anything that emits radio waves. And in Echodyne’s case, the FCC has said yes, the company can emit radio waves at a particular frequency for a particular use case. The approval process timeline depends on the technology and how familiar the FCC is with the technology. As mentioned earlier, it was a particularly slow process with MESA because there were no radar systems designed for collision avoidance for drones. The FCC had to get comfortable with the application and the design criteria.

Echodyne

Echodyne’s MESA-DAA radar system mounted to a drone. Courtesy Echodyne.

“If you were going to build a new five gigahertz modem which emits radio waves and has to have an FCC approval that’s a product that’s so well known that you know exactly what you’re dealing with,” said Eben Frankenberg, Echodyne’s CEO. “But when you’re doing something brand new or novel you actually have to go through the process of defining it before you can get it approved. This was a first.”

Aside from use on drones, people are looking at Echodyne’s MESA radar for flying taxi services as well. “There are a bunch of companies building unmanned aeronautical vehicles that are designed to carry people and they’re going to need radar capabilities. They are testing our radar right now,” Frankenberg said.

The widespread use of beyond-line-of-sight drones is still a couple of years away, but it’s coming, and the FCC is actively crossing t’s and dotting i’s to make sure our airspace is safe when it happens. More than likely, thanks to Echodyne.