Now called LIDAR, it was originally named after a mix of light and RADAR because it does the same thing as RADAR but uses light instead of radio waves (the “RA” in RADAR).
It is now one of the technologies used in self driving (or autonomous) vehicles combined with cameras, ultrasonic detectors, GPS and radar equipment. These pieces of equipment have been around for decades – especially RADAR and are used together to ensure that if one device fails to spot something, then another will. As we have seen with a recently reported Tesla v truck incident, that doesn’t always happen.
Most of the equipment that the car manufacturers, Uber and Google use has shrunk in size which anyone would expect as more development takes place. This happens with every device humans have created. Now it is LIDAR’s turn to shrink but at the same time get more powerful.
Today the LIDAR used in autonomous vehicles fits on the roof, mounted in a pod that makes the car look like a robot. Clearly if these vehicles are to become mainstream, all the technology must be smaller and cheaper to manufacture, fit and service.
The boffins in Germany have been hard at it and developed a LIDAR on a chip courtesy of Infineon, a chip maker. Their experience has been in developing chips for radar by taking the complex circuitry and mapping it on one single silicon chip – no mean feat! This not only meant a cheaper product but also a faster more powerful one as the signals had far less to travel between functions rather than travelling down wires. Cost wise, this brought the price per unit down around ten-fold making them far more useful.
Late last year Infineon bought a Dutch company that had developed a micro electro mechanical mirror system (MEMS) that is millimetres in size. It’s a great name because it covers pretty much every technical term possible! What Infineon have done is use actuators to move the mirror such that the laser beam is delivered in different directions. This the boffins say, means that the power of the laser is used completely for scanning rather than the light being spread out too much.
This technology is claimed to be able to scan thousands of data points every second and are small enough to be fitted behind the top of the front and rear screens on a car – in reality if they are that small, there could be multiple devices on a single vehicle. Cost wise today a LIDAR system costs between $20,000 and $50,000 depending on power. Infineon are aiming for $250 per unit!
Infineon have provided prototypes to Delphi and ZF (a large German automotive parts company) so that the next step in development can occur – the testing of the equipment on its own and with the other tech used to make the car “see” and think.
If the price point target is met, LIDAR will be seen in many other devices both for industrial and consumer uses. It would help Amazon’s new drone delivery service improve its reliability and performance and it would also probably speed up development of home automation systems where devices can move on their own through a building to fix problems or clean up after lazy humans!