Voyant Photonics, which created a mini chip-sized LiDAR system, claims that the tiny size has reduced the manufacturing cost by ‘more than 10 times’ and has also brought ‘semiconductor scaling to 3D sensing’.
LIDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is a surveying method that measures distance to a target by illuminating the target with laser light and measuring the reflected light with a sensor. While LIDAR is used in a variety of fields ranging from construction to disaster response (Also Read: Use of LiDAR in disaster response), it is critical for autonomous vehicles and robots as it helps them to sense the world around them. However, a long-standing problem with LiDAR has been its size — remember large spinning LiDAR sensors fitted on top of vehicles.
But not anymore! Voyant Photonics, a New York-based company, has created a LiDAR system which is as small as a mini chip, and can practically fit on your fingertip. The company claims that the tiny size has reduced the manufacturing cost by “more than 10 times” and has also brought “semiconductor scaling to 3D sensing”.
Smart and cost effective
For self-driving cars to become a reality through commercial viability, automakers will have to equip vehicles with sensing technologies that can plan a path through a virtual map. In a way, LiDAR is fundamental to autonomous vehicles as it provides 3D high-resolution information about the external environment.
Not only can LiDAR spot the position of people and objects near the vehicle, it can further assess the speed at which they are moving. Voyant Photonics’ creation holds great significance because even the most compact LiDAR solutions still have the size issue and the ones that are ready to be fitted in vehicles are larger than a hand.
In such a scenario, a LiDAR of the size of a chip can be easily installed in multiple corners of a vehicle (even inside the cabin) and can provide valuable data on the position of people and objects around it.
Further, even if the “10 times cheaper” claim by the company is partially true, it means that the exhoribitant cost of manufacturing autonomous vehicles will get substantially lower — since LiDAR system is an essential part of such vehicles. “This is an enabling technology because it’s so small,” Voyant Co-Founder Steven Miller was quoted as saying. “We’re talking cubic centimeter volumes. There’s a lot of electronics that can’t accommodate a lidar the size of a softball — think about drones and things that are weight-sensitive, or robotics, where it needs to be on the tip of its arm,” he added.
Others in fray
LIDAR systems are mostly bulky and expensive. High-end models cost thousands of dollars, and even the smallest new systems are considerable in size. Since the sensor is mechanical, spinning around constantly, it is large. The large size of the LiDAR limits the refresh rate of the image. A solution to the size issue may be on the cards as researchers from MIT and DARPA are working on a new version that shrinks the light-bouncing apparatus onto a chip that’s smaller than a grain of rice. It is a LiDAR sensor that fits onto one 300 millimeter microchip.
LiDAR chip is a silicon photonics that uses silicon waveguides to create “wires for light,” with properties similar to optical fibers except on a much smaller scale. These waveguides are integrated into on-chip photonic circuits. An electronic analogy to silicon photonics would be something like taking discrete electrical components and integrating them onto a microchip.
These chips could be manufactured using the same process used for microprocessors, which will bring down the cost of production considerably. Not only does this new approach mean that the sensors will be much cheaper — they’ll cost about $10 each to produce.