The Bellevue company is using “metamaterial” engineering to develop a small, relatively low-cost radar for commercial use.

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In a nondescript office tucked near Highway 520 in Bellevue, a couple dozen physicists and engineers think they have reached what may be the biggest breakthrough in commercial radar in a generation.

The company, Echodyne, shipped its first radar-array prototype to a prospective partner in July. It’s currently offering a handful more devices for other radar makers to evaluate.

Echodyne says its radar, whose secret sauce is “metamaterials” engineering, comes cheaper, and much lighter, than the advanced arrays on the market. They see potential markets in builders of drones, self-driving cars and robots, among other businesses.

“The holy grail in radar is to have high performance, with low cost, size, weight and power,” said Eben Frankenberg, Echodyne’s chief executive officer. The company’s product, he said, brings “many factors of improvement compared to what’s available.”

Echodyne was created to commercialize technology developed at Intellectual Ventures, or IV, the Bellevue research and patent-buying company founded by former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold. IV has a reputation in corners of the technology world as a patent hoarder, content to make money by piling up the rights to technology and earning cash by selling licenses and wielding the threat of lawsuits.

But with Echodyne, and fellow metamaterials spinoffs Kymeta and Evolv, as well as nuclear-power startup TerraPower, IV is increasingly in the business of starting new companies.

Echodyne, which occupies the distinctly business-focused niche of the booming technology-startup market, last year drew about $15 million in financial backing from Bill Gates, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital and Seattle venture-capital stalwart Madrona Venture Group, among others.

Metamaterials science, a field that has slowly migrated from theory to practical applications in the past 10 years, involves a deeper use of physics in designing materials.

Scientists create patterns of small, repeating structures to make surfaces interact with light, sound or other waves in ways that don’t occur in nature. Science-fictionlike applications such as cloaking devices, supercharged antennas or sound absorbers beckoned.

Tom Driscoll, a former scientist at Duke University, led the group of researchers Myhrvold brought to IV to study commercializing metamaterials science. Outside small clusters of researchers, scientists and the general public were skeptical of the practicality of metamaterials.

“People thought [the science] was wrong, or fake,” Driscoll said. “Or wrong and fake.”

When years of study suggested that view was incorrect, Intellectual Ventures launched Echodyne as a separate entity last year. Driscoll joined as chief technology officer. Frankenberg, a former chief operating officer at IV, would run the company, which now employs 22 people.

Frankenberg thinks Echodyne can fill a gap in the radar market, bringing more powerful radar than the cheap systems now on the market at a fraction of the cost (and size) of large military-style systems.

Radar technology, widely available since World War II, gives its operator a sense of what is in an environment by sending out radio waves and measuring the time it takes them to bounce back after striking objects.

There are two main two types of radar on the market today.

Mechanically scanned arrays — best known as the spinning rectangular devices atop ships — scan the horizon by shooting a small beam from a rotating antenna. They sell for thousands of dollars but aren’t able to consistently track objects or scan the area very quickly.

More advanced electronically scanned arrays, including the military-grade devices mounted on the noses of fighter jets, use thousands of electronically controlled amplifiers to direct radio waves. They can track multiple objects fast, and in three dimensions. They range in price from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars.

Echodyne’s prototype metamaterial electronically scanning array, or MESA, is built using off-the-shelf circuit board manufacturing tools, weighs around three pounds, and is about the size of a shrunken briefcase. The company thinks it will cost somewhere in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

To the uninformed observer, the device looks like a few circuit boards strapped together. A component on one end allows software programmers to plug in to the programming interface via a USB cable.

When others in the radar business see the device, Frankenberg says, the typical response is “where’s the rest of it?”

The configuration of MESA’s metamaterials, a series of tiny customized shapes and circuits embedded in the board, turn the device into an antenna without the aid of many of the electronic components of advanced arrays. That cuts down not only on the cost of the componentsbut the associated power and cooling needs.

A test last year showed what Echodyne’s device could do for the nascent drone business, which faces the challenge of keeping automated or remote-controlled devices from careening into nearby objects or each other.

The team mounted a prototype array on a small drone quadcopter, modified so it could automatically track a target, in Driscoll’s backyard. The drone managed to recognize (and avoid) the company’s senior systems architect.

In addition to drones and other airborne vehicle, Echodyne sees potential markets in self-driving cars and other vehicles, corporate security or military vehicles.

“Our big push is we can bring high performance to the commercial markets,” Frankenberg said.