A Skyfront Perimeter drone takes off from the Alyeska trans-Alaska pipeline right of way near Fox for a milestone flight beyond the operator’s visual line of sight. The drone flew 3.87 miles along the pipeline corridor. (University of Alaska Photo / Sean Tevebaugh) A public-private consortium led by the University of Alaska has conducted the first-ever federally authorized test flight of a drone beyond the operator’s line of sight without on-the-ground observers keeping watch – with Echodyne, the radar venture that’s backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and headquartered in Kirkland, Wash., playing a supporting role. Autonomous flight beyond visual line of sight will be key to the kinds of drone delivery operations envisioned by Amazon, Walmart and other retailers. During Wednesday’s flight, a multirotor drone as part of the University of Alaska’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, from the Federal Aviation Administration last year. The big thing about this flight is that the drone made use of , paired up with Echodyne’s ground-based MESA airspace management radar system, without having a human on the route. Current FAA regulations limit drone flights to the operator’s visual line of sight. Pilot projects have been experimenting with technologies that can ensure safe operations beyond the visual line of sight, known as BVLOS. But until now, the FAA’s waivers still required a ground-based observer to look out for non-cooperative aircraft coming into the test area. This week’s flight of a drone totally on its own was authorized after it flew the same route with visual observers. “The test mission designed by the team at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks is an excellent demonstration of the potential for commercial UAS,” Eben Frankenberg, the founder and CEO of Echodyne, . “With Iris Automation and Echodyne sensor technologies, routine commercial missions like linear inspection and medical deliveries to remote communities are both practical and safe.” The radar system developed by Echodyne relies on metamaterials technology, which uses specially structured electronics to bend electromagnetic waves. Circuits based on metamaterials can allow for the construction of flat-panel radar devices that match the performance of larger, more expensive phased array antennas. Echodyne is one of several metamaterials-based startups that have been spun out from Bellevue, Wash.-based Intellectual Ventures with Gates’ financial backing. Its most recently reported funding round from Gates as well as Silicon Valley’s New Enterprise Associates, the Kresge Foundation, Lux Capital, Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group and Vulcan Capital. The company is playing a role in several tests of detect-and-avoid technologies for drones. In March, Echodyne announced that its as part of NASA’s UAS Traffic Management program, in Texas and Nevada. Meanwhile, the tests in Alaska will continue, focusing on pipeline inspection as well as other applications potentially including medical device delivery, search and rescue, road monitoring and surveys of fish and wildlife.
Anopheles mosquitoes are carriers for the malaria parasite. (CDC Photo / James Gathany) It’s at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a time to focus on the global campaign to eradicate malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. And if delving into the nuts and bolts of developing an effective malaria vaccine doesn’t grab you, how about adding a “Star Trek” angle? That’s exactly what Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is doing in . When I was younger, I loved science fiction. The author I read the most was Robert Heinlein (“The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” was a favorite). — Bill Gates (@BillGates) As a teenager, I remember watching an episode of the original Star Trek where the bad guy is a shapeshifter who turns himself into a second Captain Kirk. — Bill Gates (@BillGates) There’s an epic scene at the end where Spock has to figure out which one is the impostor. — Bill Gates (@BillGates) Shapeshifters are not just the stuff of science fiction, though. We have them right here on earth. — Bill Gates (@BillGates) To kick off , I wrote about the world’s deadliest shapeshifter (and what scientists are learning about how to beat it). — Bill Gates (@BillGates) How did Gates go from science fiction to epidemiological fact? Even Mr. Spock would find the logical progression fascinating. The malaria virus is transmitted by a tiny parasite that mosquitoes carry from host to host as they go about their bloodsucking ways. It’d be nice to have a vaccine that can train your immune system to recognize the parasite and fight it off before the virus takes hold of its victim. Unfortunately, the parasite has developed its own defense against that strategy. Gates noted that the parasite is designed to shuffle up to 60 different proteins to present a new molecular “shape” to your immune system every few days. That throws off the mechanism that makes it possible for the immune system to recognize and attack an invader. This is why it’s so hard to come up with an effective vaccine. Gates compared the challenge to a scene from a “Star Trek” episode titled in which Spock has to decide which of two identical-looking Captain Kirks is actually a deranged shapeshifter. Spock could just stand by and wait for the right moment while the two Kirks duked it out, but Gates said it’s tougher to fight real-life shapeshifters: “You might think we could create a vaccine that simply recognizes all the different shapes of the parasite. Unfortunately, that’s not practical. The only vaccine we have ever done that with is for a type of pneumonia. It is very expensive to manufacture and covers only a dozen shapes or so, versus the 60 shapes in one malaria infection and the many hundreds across all malaria parasites worldwide. “The malaria community (including our foundation) has been working for years on a vaccine to protect you in stage 1, before the infection takes hold. This vaccine, called RTS,S, teaches your immune system to hunt for a bit of protein that is always on the surface of the parasite. Unfortunately, the protection provided by RTS,S is not strong enough for long enough to help us make real headway toward eradication. And there are other forms of protection (such as bednets and insecticides) that are more cost-effective for saving lives.” So is it futile to look for a vaccine that’s effective enough and inexpensive enough to shut down the shapeshifters? Gates said advances in biotech are keeping hope alive: “For example, scientists are working on new approaches that we hope will trigger the immune system to create long-lived, antibody-generating cells. Another promising idea is to create synthetic antibodies rather than trying to get your immune system to make natural ones. These have revolutionized the treatment of cancer and inflammatory disease, and they could do the same for infectious diseases like malaria.” Gates said investments in bednets and other non-vaccine strategies for prevention and treatment have already reduced malaria deaths by 42 percent since 2000. His foundation also backs research into . “When I see how far we have come and how much we have learned, I am as optimistic as ever that we can beat this clever shapeshifter,” Gates wrote. Check out the Gates Foundation’s website to get an , and keep an eye on Gates Notes for, including a of from past years.
A technician places a full-size test fuel pin bundle in TerraPower’s pin duct interaction test apparatus. TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, is working on traveling-wave reactor technology. (TerraPower Photo) If dollars were votes, newly reintroduced legislation aimed at boosting nuclear energy innovation and advanced reactors would be a winner, thanks to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ strong endorsement today. The world’s is the founder of Bellevue, Wash.-based , a startup that’s working on next-generation nuclear fission reactors. Back in December, Gates listed nuclear energy research as , and he by promising lawmakers he’d invest $1 billion of his own money and line up another $1 billion in private capital if federal funds were approved for a TerraPower pilot project in the United States. TerraPower had planned a pilot in China, but trade tensions upset the plan. During the waning days of the previous congressional session, a bipartisan group in the Senate introduced a measure called the , which would promote next-generation nuclear power by boosting research and setting up long-term agreements for federal power purchases from newly licensed reactors. The bill would require the Department of Energy to demonstrate two advanced reactor concepts by 2025, followed by another two to five concepts by 2035. That would brighten the outlook for TerraPower as well as other next-gen nuclear power companies such as Oregon-based NuScale Power, which is at the Idaho National Laboratory by 2026. There wasn’t enough time to move the bill out of committee last year — but on Wednesday, the by 15 senators, including Republicans such as Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham as well as Democrats such as New Jersey’s Cory Booker and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. That came as music to Gates’ ears, and today he let the world know on Twitter: Yesterday, a bipartisan group of leaders in the U.S. Senate introduced the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, which establishes an ambitious plan to accelerate the development of advanced nuclear reactor technologies. I can’t overstate how important this is. — Bill Gates (@BillGates) To prevent the worst effects of climate change, we need to reach near-zero emissions on all the things that drive it—agriculture, electricity, manufacturing, transportation, and buildings—by investing in innovation across all sectors while deploying low cost renewables. — Bill Gates (@BillGates) Nuclear energy is one of these critical technologies. It’s ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day. — Bill Gates (@BillGates) I’m thrilled that senators from both sides of the aisle have come together to support advanced nuclear. This is exactly the kind of leadership our country needs to both solve the climate challenge and reassert our leadership in this important industry. — Bill Gates (@BillGates) Some experts — such as Gregory Jaczko, former head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — and argue that funding should go instead toward developing renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, and boosting battery technologies. Even if Gates’ view is true, some analysts question whether the advanced nuclear projects that are currently in the works could hit the 2025 demonstration timetable specified in the legislation. The promise of further federal support would certainly motivate companies like TerraPower and NuScale to try, however. Jessica Lovering, director of energy at the California-based Breakthrough Institute, said the measure would provide a “shot in the arm for entrepreneurs working on advanced nuclear technologies.” “With luck, it will be become law,” . “But while the bill is a big step toward commercializing advanced reactors, it’s not enough. More legislation will likely be needed to stimulate the market demand necessary to deploy significant nuclear to replace fossil fuels.”
Lumotive’s co-founders, CEO William Colleran and CTO Gleb Akselrod, show off a printed-circuit wafer that’s part of their “secret sauce” for next-generation lidar detectors. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) BELLEVUE, Wash. — A succession of spinouts supported by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has taken an unorthodox technology known as metamaterials to high-flying realms ranging from satellite communications to drone-sized radar systems — but the latest metamaterials venture to come out of stealth is aiming for a more down-to-earth frontier: the car that will someday be driving you. Like Kymeta, Echodyne, Evolv and Pivotal Commware, Lumotive takes advantage of electronic circuits that are able to shift the focus and path of electromagnetic waves without moving parts. Unlike those other Seattle-area companies, Lumotive is using those metamaterials to steer laser light instead of radio waves. “It’s always been kind of a Holy Grail of metamaterials to figure out how you can do that at optical wavelengths,” Lumotive’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Gleb Akselrod, told GeekWire this week. To do it, Lumotive has created what Akselrod calls a “secret sauce” of liquid crystal sandwiched with printed silicon circuits. The company’s chips have tiny tunable antennas that can sweep laser light across a 120-degree field, and read what’s reflected to build up a high-resolution map of its surroundings up to 20 times a second. The cracker-sized chips are tailor-made to fit into laser-scanning gadgets known as lidars, which are one of the tools of the trade used in self-driving cars for situational awareness. Today’s lidar systems are bulky contraptions that typically cost tens of thousands of dollars and sit on top of the first-generation autonomous vehicles fielded by the likes of and . Bringing down the cost and size of those lidars is a high priority for most self-driving cars. (Tesla, however, has and rely instead on .) Lumotive’s prototype lidar device looks like 6-inch-wide jewelry box, and could conceivably be built into a car’s bumper or rear-view mirror. Unlike first-generation lidars, there are no moving parts that swing around to do a scan. And the gadgets could end up costing a lot less than today’s lidar systems. “Today’s systems are so expensive because it’s basically like making a Swiss watch. They’re very intricate mechanical systems,” Lumotive co-founder and CEO William Colleran explained. “Ours is more like consumer electronics. When lidar becomes mature — which is, I don’t know, five, six, eight years from now — when the volumes are high, I think these systems will come in at a few hundred dollars. In the meantime, we still have cost advantages over other approaches.” Lumotive CEO William Colleran shows of the guts of a prototype lidar device incorporating metamaterials. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) , who’s previously served as CEO at ventures including Impinj and AnswerDash, said Lumotive is pursuing a step-by-step plan to catch the rising tide. Like the other metamaterials spinouts, Lumotive got its start at Bellevue-based , which has been methodically mining applications of the technology for . The startup struck out on its own in late 2017 with an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Gates, and it’s now in the midst of a Series A funding round. Lumotive plans to have an initial working prototype ready to show to potential customers later this year, with more refined prototypes and the first commercial products rolling out by the end of 2020. Colleran said the first automotive customers are likely to use high-performance lidar devices in “robo-taxis,” his term for the fleets of autonomous vehicles that , and intend to use in rideshare operations. But those won’t be the only customers. “While we’re developing this primarily for automotive, there are some other markets along the way — for example, drones, robots, industrial automation — that can all benefit from this ability to have a 3-D sense of their surroundings,” he said. “Those don’t require automotive qualification, so obviously you can go to market much faster. We anticipate generating revenue starting late next year.” Lumotive’s chief technology officer, Gleb Akselrod, says chip design is part of the “secret sauce” for the startup’s next-generation lidar devices. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) In the longer term, lower-cost lidar systems should become available for less intensive automotive applications such as advanced driver assistance systems, or , which can help human drivers with collision avoidance, adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane-centering and other semi-autonomous tasks. Colleran said Lumotive currently has 14 employees, but he expects to add significantly to that workforce in the months ahead. The metamaterials revolution in places like , but thanks in part to Intellectual Ventures’ succession of spinouts, the Pacific Northwest is becoming home to more and more metamaterials mavens. “It’s nice to have a community here in Seattle of people who have solved similar technical problems,” said Akselrod, who was a postdoctoral researcher at Duke before. “That’s unique to have this kind of tight technology community forming around metamaterials.” Through the decades, the Seattle area’s tech frontiers have earned it nicknames like and . Maybe it’s time to add Metamaterials City to the list.