Frank Drake's principal research activities are directed toward the detection of planetary systems and life, particularly intelligent life in the universe. He participates in Project Phoenix, the most powerful system for searching for radio signals from other civilizations. The project employs radio spectrometers that can monitor up to 15 million frequency bands simultaneoulsy, on two polarizations, as well as special signal detection instruments and software to search for a variety of possible intelligent signal forms in the captured data. The system is portable and is transported to the world's largest radio telescopes, in various parts of the world. It is being used to search for intelligent signals from some 1,000 of the nearest solar-type stars and from star-rich regions of the Milky Way.
Drake works on the design of large radio telescopes for use in radio astronomy and in the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life. The goal is to achieve very large energy-collecting areas at very low cost, based on the design principles of the Arecibo 305-meter radio telescope. He also works on the theory of optimum strategies for the detection of rare objects and transient events in the cosmos. Recently, he has been exploring the possible observational effects in natural and technologically produced radiation caused by gravitational lensing by stars and other discrete objects. These have suggested that such gravitational lenses might be used in some circumstances to great benefit in detecting other planetary systems or intelligent radio transmissions.