LiDAR is a detection system that measures the distance to an object by projecting a laser light. It is a technology that has many applications that are likely part of your life day-to-day. Take land or water surveying, for example; an accurate and robust LiDAR detection system is extraordinarily useful in topography and other related fields.
Image courtesy of Geo-Plus
Companies such as Google, Mercedes-Benz, Delphi, and Nissan have created various designs that use LiDAR as part of their sensor systems on autonomous self-driving cars. For driverless vehicles, LiDAR systems are extremely critical because the technology generates very precise location markings of its surroundings.
While this technology is extremely useful, its cost is not suitable for an average person to own or create. This is unfortunate because, if the technology was as accessible as Raspberry Pi or Arduino, people could create potentially groundbreaking projects and products.
The Cost of LiDAR
Some considerations that need to be taken into account when engineering LiDAR sensors on a large scale are the size, intricacy, and cost of production. Companies have to get creative to find the right types of materials, manufacturing methods, and designs—these can limit how complex their sensors can be.
Today's systems have mainly been utilizing the HDL-64E lidar sensor by Velodyne. This is considered to be one of the higher-end sensors at 2.2 million data points and 64 lasers to plot out a 3D map as far out as about 120 meters away. With such complexity and accuracy, it's no wonder it's priced at $80,000. However, Velodyne and a few other companies are working towards producing sensors that are still quite accurate but much, much cheaper.
A Velodyne LiDAR sensor. Image courtesy of Velodyne LiDAR™
The Affordable LiDAR Movement
In order to produce less expensive sensors at a large scale, companies have been researching how to make the sensors, themselves, more efficient, smaller, and easier to manufacture.
Scanse is just one of many companies that are aiming to bring a cheaper sensor to the average consumer. Scanse is a California-based startup featured on Kickstarter that developed a 2D LiDAR named sweep. Sweep is a $250 LiDAR sensor that spins 360 degrees at a range of 40 meters. The sensor has a sample rate of 500 samples per second and a rotation frequency of 2-10 Hertz.
You can basically use this sensor as you please. Some applications could be monitoring movements in rooms to control thermostats or helping drones achieve autonomous motion. Sweep would be great for developers to implement into their designs at an affordable cost.
Another company that is aiming towards creating a cheaper sensor is Quanergy Systems. This company took a different approach by creating the world's first integrated solid state LiDAR sensor, which is designed for autonomous vehicles. Their sensor utilizes the use of an optical phased array as their transmitter, which in fact can direct pulses of light by shifting (altering) the phase of the laser pulse as it's being projected through the array.
Quanergy has set a price point for their S3 model at $250. At such a price, even more car manufacturers will likely start looking into developing a driverless car or incorporating LiDAR into their production models.
If you'd like to learn more about the hardware and software Quanergy uses, check out this presentation by Quanergy's CEO, Louay Eldada, for Stanford University.
Innoviz, an Israel-based company, believes they can create a $100 LiDAR system for automotive use by 2018. They raised over $9 million with the desire to producing a prototype of a solid state LiDAR system by the end of this year. The company said that they set their price at this point by reducing the number of components involved in order to shrink costs. With the reduction of parts, Innoviz has designed the system to be no larger than 5 cm x 5 cm x 5 cm.
In the world of academics, MIT has teamed up with DARPA to squeeze a LiDAR sensor onto a single chip. Yes, a single chip. They used solid state LiDAR technology to produce this $10 chip. Researchers believe that this chip and its vast amount of technology will be manufactured commercially within just a few years.
As you can see, there are quite a few companies and universities that are looking to set the bar high for LiDAR technology. These sensors are relatively new, so who knows where the next few years will take us in terms of advancing autonomous vehicles, surveying, and much more.