Echodyne Targets Drones, Self-Driving Cars with Metamaterials Radar

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unlock huge new markets. “I like to compare this in some ways to the Global Positioning System, which started out as a high-end, primarily military sensor and is now on countless devices,” Frankenberg says.

Metamaterials off the shelf

To the layperson, metamaterials—like any technology insufficiently understood—start to approach magic. Just to be clear, I’m a layperson, but Frankenberg and Driscoll did their best to explain the technology, while keeping trade secrets close to the vest.

“When we use the term ‘metamaterials,’ people often think this a materials science project, and you’re building some kind of exotic material to do this,” Frankenberg says. (Some very high frequency applications do require exotic materials, but not the ones Echodyne is working on.) “It’s printed circuit board technology, with pretty standard off-the-shelf electronics parts,” he says.

An Echodyne metamaterials radar antenna.

An Echodyne metamaterials radar antenna.

The geometric configurations of metal and circuit board—gold-colored swirls to the naked eye—that form the metamaterials surface act as the individual antenna elements or cells in Echodyne’s radar.

“Different people have found that different shapes are more or less advantageous in different configurations, and we’ve found the same thing,” Driscoll says. “So part of our secret sauce is in what shapes work best for what radar applications, and how you build those shapes into circuit boards.”

The metamaterials antenna elements don’t need individual phase shifters or amplifiers like in active electronically scanned arrays. They’re controlled instead by “fairly simple row-column addressing software” that turns them on and off, creating patterns to direct the radar beam, Frankenberg says. This saves costs both in individual electronics components and cooling systems required to keep them from overheating. It also allows more antenna elements to be placed closer together for higher-resolution radar.

A useful analogy can be found in video monitors. “If you get up close to it, you can see pixels,” Driscoll says. “When you step away from it a little ways, they blend together. They homogenize to form an image. That’s exactly the same thing we’re doing here.”

Bottom line, Echodyne says the metamaterials antennas will offer capabilities like active electronically scanning arrays at prices closer to mechanical radars, and in much smaller packages.

The company has 13 employees and about half a dozen job openings, with plans for more as it ramps up research and development, engineering, and manufacturing of its radars. The company aims to have two products at different frequencies ready this year to share with integration partners, which would combine Echodyne’s antennas with their existing back-end systems for radar signal processing.

Radar for cars

Echodyne is positioning its metamaterials radar among other machine vision technologies, such as optical cameras, near-infrared and structured light sensors, and Lidar (a radar-like technology that uses laser beams in place of radio waves), that will enable a new generation of autonomous vehicles to operate safely in a normal outdoor environment.

In addition to aerial drones and new military and government applications, Echodyne sees great long-term potential for metamaterials radar in the automotive industry. While low-end radar is used now for things like adaptive cruise control or parallel parking assistance, “we think the value proposition for a true imaging radar is significantly higher than that,” Driscoll says.

The company believes radar is a superior sensor because it can accurately detect objects and the distance to them, while optical systems may require multiple sensors or sophisticated software to do that. And radar, unlike other machine vision technologies, works in rain, snow, darkness, dust, and other low-visibility conditions. “Optical systems all start to fall apart when you introduce any kind of environmental variables,” Frankenberg says.

Indeed, one of the initial uses of radar was to find ships in the fog. In a few years, perhaps, it could be used to help driverless cars better navigate foggy streets.

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