This week a little-known Israeli startup Oryx Vision made news as it landed an additional $50 million in investment for its LIDAR technologies. Meanwhile, a company you have heard of, Intel, via its Mobileye company said it will start building a fleet of fully autonomous vehicles for testing in the United States, Israel and Europe – with LIDAR as a central component.
But what is LIDAR (often written as LiDAR) and why does it matter?
LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is a remote sensing technique that uses laser light to measure distance. Its traditional uses are to collect topographic (elevation) information about the Earth’s surface, riverbeds, and seafloors from airborne platforms including airplanes and helicopters. The sensed distances, in combination with location and other orientation data, create a dense point cloud of elevation points. Outputs are digital elevation models, vegetation canopy models, and even 3D building models. Many applications use these models, including military, archaeology, agriculture, land use planning, construction, emergency response, and environmental protection.
According to NASA, a LIDAR instrument on a spacecraft was first used to measure planetary surface height and topography on the Apollo 15 mission to the Moon in 1971. Fast forward to today – and back on Earth the autonomous vehicle (AV) industry (Three Reasons to Pay Attention to Autonomous Vehicles) has what might be the most challenging technology environment ever. AVs need to move people and goods safely and efficiently in an always-changing environment.
So the AV industry uses a combination of high-quality sensors including cameras, LIDAR, motion detection, night vision, and location positioning. LIDAR provides reliable 360-degree and precise 3D awareness of a vehicle’s surroundings. But there are drawbacks using LIDAR with vehicles, including the following:
- Cost. Velodyne, one widely used solution with Ford and Baidu as backers, costs tens of thousands of dollars for one vehicle. For a mass consumer market, those costs need to be in the hundreds of dollars per vehicle. Oryx Vision says its most notable innovation is a microscopic antenna can receive light’s tiny and ultra-fast waves, lowering the costs.
- Mechanical reliability. LIDAR sensors mounted on the vehicle’s roof spin on low-friction bearings that wear from road vibrations, requiring improved stabilization. There are efforts to develop solid state LIDARs that could be a major improvement.
- Physical obstacles. LIDAR isn’t great at penetrating things like fog, blizzards, and sandstorms, etc. because anything that scatters light causes problems.
- Safety. Lasers can harm the eyes of living things, limiting their power settings and frequencies.
Many startups, large platers, and government-funded research projects are investing in and working on addressing the specific needs of the automotive industry for LIDAR. So I expect that within a couple of years, LIDAR will no longer be an obstacle to autonomous vehicles going mainstream.
There are many applications for LIDAR beyond autonomous vehicles. LIDAR can be used with drones for 3D mapping for applications such as cell tower placement, city building model creation, and precision farming. Indoor mapping uses LIDAR as one of several methods to map inside buildings. I expect LIDAR to play a role in the development of farther-out technologies including robotics and facial recognition technologies. I also expect LIDAR will be used in multiple different frequency bands, combined with cameras for many future applications including AVs. In thousands of situations where shape and/or distance need to be accurately measured, reported, and acted upon - including in real time - LIDAR can play a role. Given the typical pace of innovation and adaptation of such useful technologies, it’s important to understand what LIDAR is and offers.
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NOTE: this Lens360 blog post was originally published online by ISG at http://insights.isg-one.com.