On Monday, Seattle-area radar startup Echodyne is expected to announce a $29 million investment, led by NEA, with participation from other investors including Bill Gates and his Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital.
In fact, this is the second time Bill Gates has invested considerable cash in Echodyne. The world’s richest man personally led the company’s previous $15 million round, with Seattle’s high-profile Madrona Ventures chipping in on both investments.
The reason why Gates and company are so excited: Back in 2014, Echodyne CEO Eben Frankenberg foresaw that drones and self-driving cars were going to be big businesses – and bet his new company on the notion that they could build better sensors to power that future, with systems that work even in the worst and rainiest of weather conditions.
That turned out to be prescient as companies like Amazon begin making big bets on drones, and Google’s sister company Waymo looks to turn self-driving cars into a big business. Now, Echodyne is carving out its niche in what has turned out to be fast-growing market.
“Those things are now coming, really really quickly,” Frankenberg tells Business Insider.
Echodyne’s big breakthrough product is the Metamaterial Electronically Scanning Array (MESA). It’s a radar array that’s small enough to mount on a drone – like the ones Amazon or Google might use for their drone delivery programs. But the company says MESA arrays is an order of magnitude more powerful than existing sensors.
The company plans to use the new funding to build more of these MESA arrays as well as staff up beyond its existing 40 employees – part of the game plan, says Frankenberg, is to go beyond just making the sensor arrays, and start writing more of the software to make sense of the data it gathers.
Back in November 2016, Echodyne hit a major milestone on that front with the successful test of a system that lets drones mounted with MESA automatically detect and evade oncoming aircraft and other obstacles – even when it would otherwise be too far away, too cloudy, or too dark for a human operator to see. It’s a big step towards letting drones operate even without a human operator keeping close tabs on them.
Now, Frankenberg says, the company is starting to ship a souped-up version of MESA for larger drones. The new ones can pick out a small Cessna aircraft from the equivalent of thirty football fields away, and a hobbyist DJI Phantom drone from 750 meters.
Beyond drones, Echodyne is also working on smaller versions of the MESA for self-driving cars.
Frankenberg says that MESA is attractive to carmakers because Echodyne can offer superior resolution to the usual lasers or cameras at shorter distances. Using radar also has the benefit of working in the rain, the fog, or the “glaring sun,” which he says is often overlooked by self-driving car developers.
“Not everywhere is as perfect as Sunnyvale,” where Silicon Valley companies test their cars, says Frankenberg.
Another “huge and novel” problem Echodyne is looking to solve is security. In the past, secure locations like prisons or shipyards only had to worry about intruders coming from outside; now, it’s a serious concern that threats could come from above.
“Now, you have to worry about them flying a drone over,” says Frankenberg.