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(Image courtesy of Duke University).

Echodyne Raises $29 Million for Seeing-Eye Radar

Echodyne, a company with ambitions to build radar imaging systems for drones and autonomous cars has raised $29 million in its latest round of financing, another testament to the potential for metamaterials.

Echodyne’s investors include Bill Gates, who has invested in several metamaterial ventures spun out of an investment and patent firm started by Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft chief technology officer. Kymeta and Evolv Technology are two other firms that broke off Intellectual Ventures to sell metamaterial products.

The funding is the latest show of support for Echodyne, one of the few companies to take metamaterials out of the laboratory – to be used in automobiles and communications. These materials can bend light, sound, and radio waves in unnatural ways, using structures smaller than the wavelength of the energy being manipulated.

The company, based in Bellevue, Wash., is betting on a new type of electronically-steerable radar that takes cues from current military systems, like Raytheon's antiballistic missile radar. Instead of mechanically aiming radar beams in every direction, Echodyne’s radar actively steer radio waves using electronics.

The systems work without the bulky and expensive phase shifters used in traditional electronically-scanning arrays. These components are replaced with repeating patterns of copper wire traced over ordinary circuit boards and stacked on top of each other, resulting in systems small and light enough to be equipped to drones.

Eben Frankenberg, Echodyne’s chief executive, said in a statement that its systems have much higher resolution that normal radar, which can reliably identify the location of obstacles, but not the shape and size of surrounding objects. This “radar vision” involves pairing Echodyne’s hardware with computer vision software to perceive, recognize, and classify everything from trees to cars to drones.

“Echodyne’s radar vision platform is unique,” said Greg Papadopoulos, a venture partner at New Enterprise Associates, which led the financing. He added that it “combines the fundamental all-weather benefits of radar with the high-resolution imaging capabilities more often attributed to lidar or computer vision.”

Those technologies are currently the sensors of choice for cars and drones, but their accuracy and range are limited in fog, rain, and snow. In contrast, Echodyne’s radar works in poor weather conditions and also senses objects in the dark, making it a potentially valuable asset for autonomous cars and robots.

Echodyne’s first commercial product – around the size of an Amazon Kindle – is designed to let drones perceive nearby aircraft, so that companies can fly out of the light of sight to survey farms or construction sites. The sensor can detect and track a helicopter up to 1.85 miles away and other large drones at a half mile.

Echodyne has raised $44 million since its founding in 2014, a clear statement of the potential ascribed to metamaterials. Investors are pouring money into other metamaterial users: Kymeta, which sells satellite antennas for cars and other applications, has raised around $217 million since 2012. Evolv has raised $29 million for sensors to be used in airport security systems.

Echodyne plans to spend its fresh cash on making a short-range system for autonomous cars, as well as increasing production of its radar from hundreds of units per year to thousands, Frankenberg told technology news site TechCrunch. It has already sold out its first production run of drone radar systems.

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