These Two Things Could be Big.
It this article, big means having significant impact. Radars, a proven technology for manned aircraft collision avoidance, are generally too heavy for lightweight commercial drones. Echodyne has engineered a radar antenna small enough for a drone using metamaterials. Also, Airware has released its Aerial Information Platform that is intended to provide a common operating interface across different unmanned flight platforms. Both developments provide important capabilities for beyond line of site operations that in turn will exponentially increase the utility of commercial unmanned aircraft.
Two companies have recently received attention for developments that could be significant for the drone industry. As the systems further evolve, they could be instrumental in moving unmanned aircraft to the next level—approval to operate beyond line of sight.
Echodyne, a start-up based near Seattle, is using metamaterials in an effort to reduce the cost, size and weight of radars. Metamaterials are usually arranged in repeating patterns at the microscopic level. While constructed using metals or plastics, they draw their performance properties more from the size and shape of their repeating geometry than from the materials used to make them. When those repeating structures are smaller than the wavelength of the electromagnetic radiation being detected or manipulated, a small amount of material can accomplish what usually takes a much larger device. What this means is that a radar antenna constructed out of metamaterials can detect and differentiate returning signals in a smaller package.
How much smaller? Echodyne mounted their flat Metamaterial Electronically Scanning Array (MESA) on a 5lb OktoKopter and flew it around.
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With further development, this could be the technology providing small, unmanned aircraft with a collision avoidance system. A reliable collision avoidance capability is one thing that could lead the FAA to relax its current visual flight restriction for unmanned aircraft systems. With the ability to operate beyond line of sight, drone applications will increase exponentially.
Of course, it will take time. Cost and integration issues will need to be worked out. Much more testing will be required particularly when FAA certification comes into play.
UAS’s are not the only potential application. Smart cars are another.
The $15M investment in Echodyne—by a Bill Gates and Paul Allen backed venture capital firm—appears to be a wise one.
In mid-April, Airware released its Aerial Information Platform (AIP) operating system for drones. It combines firmware and software along with the means for linking drone data to cloud services. Their intent is to provide a system that is scalable and that can provide a common interface across a fleet that may include different types of flight platforms with different types of sensors collecting different types of data.
Like the Echodyne metamaterial radar technology, the big advantage to AIP users may be in navigating through the FAA review process. Jesse Kallman, Airware’s, Director of Business Development and Regulatory Affairs certainly hints at this writing in a February 15,2015 blog, “To ensure safe operations for [beyond line of sight] and in populated areas, we should look to advances in technology like contingency management, fail-safe mechanisms, and highly-reliable flight control software.” As drones increasingly use autonomous flight and operate beyond line of sight, the FAA will want to certify the flight guidance system much like they do for manned aircraft. Since AIP is the first such platform independent system—and Airware is a well-funded company—it’s a safe bet that Airware will work to get their software certified by the FAA as soon as the FAA develops criteria. It then becomes easier for individual companies to obtain FAA approval if they are already using an approved unmanned aircraft flight control system. Just as Microsoft got out front of the competition with their personal computer operating system, Airware appears to be doing the same with AIP for commercial unmanned aircraft.
Airware is adopting the subscription model for distributing its software. To encourage the emerging domestic unmanned aircraft industry, they are willing to negotiate the subscription price so it aligns with a customers expected revenues.
According to Airware’s website, they have raised over $40 million from several strategic investors and venture capital firms, most recently General Electric Ventures. Additionally, Intel Capital, Intel’s global investment arm, recently made an undisclosed investment in Airware.