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This new radar system could help make flying cars and delivery drones a reality

Echodyne's flat panel radar hopes to power the next generation of autonomous aviation

Tech titans like Uber, Amazon, and Google have all laid out ambitious plans for filling the skies with autonomous aircraft. Uber wants to move people around with flying taxis, and Airbus is committed to producing this kind of vehicle. Meanwhile Google and Amazon are hoping to deliver packages with much smaller drones. All see the potential for fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles that can pilot themselves.

But to make that vision a reality, we're going to need a new breed of sense and avoid technology. Echodyne, a Bellevue, Washington-based startup, believes it has the answer. The company announced preliminary test results from field trials of its MESA-DAA radar system today. It says the device, which is barely larger than smartphone, is capable of detecting even small aircraft at a distance 1.8 miles in varying weather conditions. The company says this breakthrough is driven by the use of metamaterials, which allow the radar to eliminate moving parts, making the hardware smaller and more battery efficient without sacrificing range.

A lot of modern automobiles are now equipped with radar systems, in fact Tesla recently announced that it would be focusing on radar as the core technology in its autonomous driving system. But even long-range automotive radar from the likes of Bosch and Delphi only claim a range of a few hundred meters. They also don't typically have a very wide field of view. Echodyne's technology claims to be able to have a 120 degree field of view in azimuth (horizontal) and 80 degrees in elevation (vertical). Founder and CEO Eben Frankenberg also says his tech was designed to track a Cessna-sized object, which is much smaller than a car in radar cross section.

"To make a drone delivery fleet a reality, you need two things," Fankenberg told The Verge. "You need units that can operate beyond a pilot's line of sight and you need a single operator for multiple aircraft." Right now both those activities are illegal in the US. NASA and the FAA are still in the preliminary phases of designing and testing a next-generation air traffic control system that would allow for those kinds of operations. But Echodyne's technology is exactly the sort of breakthrough the industry needs to make these missions possible. The company says it hopes to follow up today's field test results with a commercial offering of this new radar technology in the first quarter of 2017.

echodyne radar

Echodyne's new radar next to a standard smartphone.