Echodyne’s compact, steerable radar spots $135M investment and prepares to diversify

When Echodyne showed off its compact but intelligent metamaterial radar system back in 2017, the applications seemed endless… but some, like urban air mobility and autonomous vehicles, we’re still waiting on. Fortunately the defense industry has buoyed the company up during a couple tough years and it is now looking to pursue new opportunities, powered by a $135M funding round co-led by Bill Gates.

The company’s technology, detailed back then, essentially replaces large, power-hungry, often mechanized radar arrays with a device the size of a hardback book.

The power and weight savings alone would make it attractive enough, but it also adds capabilities like intelligent beam-forming for directing the radar’s ability to resolve details to a small area of interest. It’s made possible by metamaterials, a class of tech lorded over by Intellectual Ventures, and where Echodyne was incubated.

Originally the thought was that this would be a great addition to things like drones, which are quite limited in the sensing hardware they can carry comfortably without affecting range or maneuverability, and autonomous vehicles, on which space is likewise at a premium.

EchoDrive was the company’s first commercial product, put out in January of 2020 and intended for AVs — and as you may recall, that market is still struggling to emerge. Not to mention the pandemic thing.

Fortunately the capabilities of Echodyne’s tech were not lost on certain deep-pocketed others, like the Army, Department of Homeland Security, NASA, and Northrop Grumman, all of which have signed contracts with the company for various reasons.

An Echodyne radar attached to a small UAV.

Image Credits: Echodyne

“You don’t need to solve the corner cases of AV when the topic is radar solutions for uncrewed aircraft systems, national and critical infrastructure security, or defense mission requirements. And we have products for dozens of applications in each one of those large and global markets,” said Eben Frankenberg, Echodyne’s CEO and co-founder.

The reality was people were hungry for better and smarter ground radar as part of a new generation of tracking and sensing that needs to occur in industrial and military situations around the world. If your main radar for detecting small UAVs at a military depot is the spinning one on top of the control tower, you’re low-hanging fruit for a modern savvy drone operator. But a dozen Echodyne radars scattered around the place might do the job ten times better for a quarter the price (these numbers purely for illustrative purposes).

Can’t hurt that they now offer the devices in desert tan:

An Echodyne radar on a small tripod overseeing a desert area.

Image Credits: Echodyne

It’s all part of a stationary, defense-focused package Echodyne calls EchoGuard. You can see in the top render that it’s meant to act as a full-sky tracking and warning system.

“We’re really leaning into the idea of networks of radars deployed that operate cooperatively, as a single instance, and feed intelligent radar data into higher-level systems,” Frankenberg said. No surprise there; the use case springs naturally to mind for institutional customers replacing or augmenting existing large scale systems and legacy installations.

That’s a good use case for existing airports and bases, but it could also apply to future infrastructure, like what might be needed in and around cities to support the still theoretical air taxis and drone delivery services perpetually a couple years out.

And don’t think they’ve given up on self-driving cars, either:

“All of the very clever developments in AI require the solution stack to run at light speed without aberration, with the goal of achieving the highest probabilistic confidence,” Frankenberg said. In other words, decision making (is it safe to change lanes?) relies on the system’s confidence in the inferences it makes, and more and better data improve that confidence. “Our radar design needs to allow for higher levels of the solution stack to direct radar operation, to confirm or clarify elements of the operating environment and drive higher probabilistic confidence for improved decision and actuation.”

Of course automation goes beyond consumer-level mobility into industry and robotics, but we’ll learn more about Echodyne’s applications there when the time is ripe.

The $135 million C round (the company has raised $195 million total since 2017) will allow the company to grow beyond the relatively safe markets of defense and federal contracts it has happily subsisted on during the pandemic. “Our product team needs to grow and mature and we have global sales and marketing expansion to plan for and get right. All of this takes time and money,” Frankenberg said.

The round was co-led by Bill Gates and Baillie Gifford, with participation from Northrop Grumman (converting customers to investors is an occasion to celebrate), NEA, Madrona Ventures, Vulcan Capital, and Vanedge Capital.

Echodyne steers its high-tech radar beam on autonomous cars with EchoDrive

Echodyne set the radar industry on its ear when it debuted its pocket-sized yet hyper-capable radar unit for drones and aircraft. But these days all the action is in autonomous vehicles — so they reinvented their technology to make a unique sensor that doesn’t just see things but can communicate intelligently with the AI behind the wheel.

Echodrive, the company’s new product, is aimed squarely at AVs, looking to complement lidar and cameras with automotive radar that’s as smart as you need it to be.

The chief innovation at Echodyne is the use of metamaterials, or highly engineered surfaces, to create a radar unit that can direct its beam quickly and efficiently anywhere in its field of view. That means that it can scan the whole horizon quickly, or repeatedly play the beam over a single object to collect more detail, or anything in between, or all three at once for that matter, with no moving parts and little power.

But the device Echodyne created for release in 2017 was intended for aerospace purposes, where radar is more widely used, and its capabilities were suited for that field: a range of kilometers but a slow refresh rate. That’s great for detecting and reacting to distant aircraft, but not at all what’s needed for autonomous vehicles, which are more concerned with painting a detailed picture of the scene within a hundred meters or so.

“They said they wanted high resolution, automotive bands [i.e. radiation wavelengths], high refresh rates, wide field of view, and still have that beam-steering capability — can you build a radar like that?” recalled Echodyne co-founder and CEO Eben Frankenberg. “And while it’s taken a little longer than I thought it would, the answer is yes, we can!”

The Echodrive system meets all the requirements set out by the company’s automotive partners and testers, with up to 60hz refresh rates, higher resolution than any other automotive radar, and all the other goodies.

An example of some raw data – note that doppler information lets the system tell which objects are moving which direction.

The company is focused specifically on level 4-5 autonomy, meaning their radar isn’t intended for basic features like intelligent cruise control or collision detection. But radar units on cars today are intended for that, and efforts to juice them up into more serious sensors are dubious, Frankenberg said.

“Most ADAS [advanced driver assist system] radars have relatively low resolution in a raw sense, and do a whole lot of processing of the data to make it clearer and make it more accurate as far as the position of an object,” he explained. “The level 4-5 folks say, we don’t want all that processing because we don’t know what they’re doing. They want to know you’re not doing something in the processing that’s throwing away real information.”

More raw data, and less processing — but Echodyne’s tech offers something more. Because the device can change the target of its beam on the fly, it can do so in concert with the needs of the vehicle’s AI.

Say an autonomous vehicle’s brain has integrated the information from its suite of sensors and can’t be sure whether an object it sees a hundred meters out is a moving or stationary bicycle. It can’t tell its regular camera to get a better image, or its lidar to send more lasers. But it can tell Echodyne’s radar to focus its beam on that object for a bit longer or more frequently.

The two-way conversation between sensor and brain, which Echodyne calls cognitive radar or knowledge-aided measurement, isn’t really an option yet — but it will have to be if AVs are going to be as perceptive as we’d like them to be.

Some companies, Frankenberg pointed out, are putting the responsibility for deciding what objects or regions need more attention on the sensors themselves — a camera may very well be able to decide where to look next in some circumstances. But on the scale of a fraction of a second, and involving the other resources available to an AV — only the brain can do that.

EchoDrive is currently being tested by Echodyne’s partner companies, which it would not name but which Frankenberg indicated are running level 4+ AVs on public roads. Given the growing number of companies that fit those once narrow criteria, it would be irresponsible to speculate on their identities, but it’s hard to imagine an automaker not getting excited by the advantages Echodyne claims.

Free societies face emerging, existential threats from technology

Silicon Valley is currently, and correctly, under fire for the failure of leading platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to protect against the spread of disinformation, hate speech and efforts to disrupt our elections. I don’t know why these companies behaved as they did.

But whatever the reason – naiveté, excessive focus on near-term profits, or simply a lack of proper attention on mind-numbingly complex problems – it’s clear they have to do a better job of making sure technology makes our world safer, freer and more stable rather than the opposite.

But it’s not just these big companies that need to up their game. As venture capitalists, we need to do more to find, fund and help a new generation of technology companies that build the infrastructure and applications to deal with technology-based threats to stability and security. Yes, Facebook and Twitter must deal with unintended consequences of their massive platforms. But if history is any guide, it will be new companies that come up with the bold new visions and business models to address fundamental, once-in-a-generation challenges.

I don’t use the word fundamental lightly. Just think about all security failures you now take for granted, that once would have been unthinkable. Our PCs and other devices are patched every few hours or days, rather than every few months. We are routinely warned by merchants—sometimes even credit agencies!—to change our passwords because they’ve been hacked. We are relieved, rather than annoyed, when the credit card company calls to verify our recent purchases.

We feel abused when we read how our online identity has been monetized without our knowledge or used to micro-target us with ads by groups seeking to polarize our politics. And there are deeper-seated concerns, like the nagging fear of a terror attack or a lone-wolf gunman when we enter an airport or let our teenage kid go to a concert. Our physical and cyber selves feel threatened on a regular basis. Like it or not, we are too often under attack, as individuals, consumers and as citizens. But like the proverbial frog in a pot, we don’t seem to notice the rising water temperature.

If we stick with the status quo, that water is only going to get hotter. We already know the Russians (and the Iranians, and the North Koreans) are again targeting U.S. voting systems in advance of the midterm elections, and the Russians also have the ability to shut down large parts of our electric grid. It hasn’t happened yet, but will Americans start worrying about congregating in public spaces, whether it is to protest, attend large rallies, or go to concerts? I grew up in Pakistan, where horrific gun and bomb attacks on civilians are more common. I can’t help fear the same scourge will come to our shores.

If this sounds like scare-mongering, so be it. There is no getting around the fact that more people have more ways to do large-scale damage than ever before. Thankfully there are technologists and entrepreneurs working diligently to find ways to defend us from such harm.

Our portfolio company Evolv Technology, for example, is using advanced sensors and AI in weapons detection systems that can screen hundreds of people per hour  without making them slow down or empty their pockets and purses. Companies like ShieldAI, Convexxum, Echodyne and others are using machine vision and advanced radars/lidar technologies to prevent people from being put in harm’s way by drone-type attacks.

A drone flying and filming over Dubai

Funding such companies can be different than the deals Silicon Valley VCs are used to.  In most cases, these firms must collaborate with trusted government actors, intelligence agencies and enforcement organizations–not to mention comply with their regulations. To be successful, they need to share information with other companies, including competitors.

But I’m betting the trouble will be well worth it. History tells us that companies that overcome big obstacles to create new markets often enjoy years of rapid growth, and few competitors.

Most of all, I believe a nervous world is ready to reward companies that make it feel safer. Just as Uber and Airbnb caught the front edge of the sharing economy boom, companies whose mission is aligned with a change in the societal zeitgeist can create huge value.

Investors are already doing their part. DCVC recently invested in Fortem Technologies, and Shasta Ventures in AirSpace, which make Star Wars-ish systems of AI-based drones whose only role is to automatically detect, identify, and slam into drones that wander into unauthorized airspace — say, over a private estate, or a factory.

General Catalyst invested in Mark43, which makes a cloud platform to help police departments and their detectives investigate crimes more quickly and effectively.

While these mission-oriented companies may not provide the fastest or steepest ramp to riches, the best of these mission-oriented companies will create technology that affects each of us every day, and businesses that will be resilient to economic cycles, fads and fashion. For investors, it’s a twofer of enlightened self-interest — both as investors, and as citizens. To paraphrase JFK, we should invest in such companies “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”