Jetsonian. It’s not a real word, but when you hear it used by Eben Frankenberg to describe the coming age of autonomous machines you’ll completely understand what he’s talking about. Frankenberg is CEO of Bellevue-based Echodyne Corporation. They make radar.
“Twenty years from now it’s going to be very Jetsonian. You’ll see lots of autonomous cars and trucks and I think there will be major changes in the transportation industry as a result of those and also in the airspace as well,” Frankenberg said.
He’s even willing to take his forecast one step further. You know those flying cars we’ve been expecting since the Sixties? “I think within twenty years there’s a high probability you’re going to see flying taxi services in some metropolitan areas — human sized drones,” he said. “And there are a bunch of companies working on that, big companies like Airbus and Boeing, as well as a ton of startups.”
Being that Frankenberg is in the thick of this technology, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Echodyne makes a new kind of high performance radar that is especially relevant with autonomous machines. “We want to make sure these machines can navigate around the world safely without crashing into things and causing harm,” said Frankenberg.
But there’s another use as well. There are concerns about autonomous machines being used by bad actors to purposefully harm, so Echodyne is working on a bunch of applications and use cases to detect the movement of autonomous machines for safety and security purposes. Especially on the drone front.
“There’s been a lot of press coverage about people delivering contraband to prisoners over prison walls using commercial drones,” Frankenberg said. “The security systems that exist for prisons have never had to think about threats coming from the air but now they need to, and the security systems are totally inadequate. You need a whole new set of sensors that can scan the airspace for things that are flying around that aren’t supposed to be there and radar is the one to use if you can get a high-performance three-dimensional scanning radar at a reasonable price point, and that’s something that we make.”
In the world of radar, the gold standard is something called “phased array radars.” That’s what the military has used for 30 or 40 years when they demand high performance, fast radar systems for fighter jets and missile defense systems. The problem with phased array radars is that they’re really expensive, anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars apiece, and so they’ve never made it into commercial markets.
“Our big innovation,” Frankenberg said, “which started at Intellectual Ventures and we continued with, is the equivalent of phased array radars at commercial price points for the first time, which is critical for this autonomous machine age. We have some that are already done and being tested in pilot programs — a drone radar and a security radar. We have radar for autonomous cars and trucks which will be coming out this fall.”
Echodyne has done a lot of work for the FAA and NASA and many commercial companies they’re not allowed to talk about. And their work is getting noticed. “We just won a competition with one of our partners for the best counter-drone system, which was sponsored by SOFWERX (a joint venture of Doolittle Institute and the United States Special Operations Command),” Frankenberg said. “That started with 90-plus companies, which got shortlisted to 30, which got shortlisted to six, and eventually we won. This was a great real-world demonstration of the capability of our technology compared to what else is available. The system that came in second place was dramatically more expensive than ours was.”
Echodyne’s goal is to make the world safer in this age of autonomy. They hope that their products will influence everyday lives. “We want people to feel safe getting in autonomous vehicles and to feel safe with autonomous vehicles around them,” Frankenberg said.
Personally, I can’t wait for that world to get here. My hope is that when I’m in my eighties and no longer trust my driving, I will be able to simply get in my car and say, “Car, take me to the Mariners game,” and it will.
“Twenty years from now I’m sure that will be the case,” said Frankenberg. “Ten years from now it’s also possible.”