A $500 LiDAR? Quanergy Demonstrates Industry First Solid-state OPA-based LiDAR
As LiDAR aims to strike big in autonomous driving and other areas, Quanergy demonstrates its industry-first solid-state OPA-based LiDAR hoping to ease size, scalability, and cost constraints.
Like radar but with light, it works by using a system containing both a moving laser diode and a photodiode for bouncing pulses of light to and from objects, determining the relative distance between them and the sensor.
An example of a general LiDAR system. Image used courtesy of Quanergy
In general, LiDAR data is then processed into 3D maps featuring precise information about objects or land masses' shape and surface characteristics, allowing these sensors to provide 3D vision to different types of vehicles such as robots, cars, aircraft, and stationary systems like smart infrastructures and industrial machines.
Despite the use and abilities of LiDAR technology, there are still a few setbacks. Traditionally, these sensors are large and expensive since they use electromechanical elements to steer the laser and receiver system. Moreover, the moving parts in mechanical sensors are prone to interference during shock or vibration, common when mounted on a car or a robot.
Mechanical LiDAR challenges have led engineers to look into other technologies for developing small, low-powered, and cost-effective designs, namely solid-state LiDAR, which don't use moving parts per se. Instead, employ technologies such as MEMS (even though microelectromechanical, this technology is still considered solid-state) or phased arrays to steer a light beam in a particular direction.
One company aiming for solid-state LiDAR innovations is Quanergy Systems. This week, Quanergy announced its development of its S3 Series LiDAR, which is supposed to be the first true solid-state LIDAR using optical phased arrays (OPA) that is also scalable, cost-effective, and ready for mass-market production.
This article will take a look at OPAs used in LiDAR systems, what Quanergy's "industry's first" sensor looks like, and what the future may look like for LiDAR technology.
Optical Phased Arrays in LiDAR Systems
As mentioned, one key feature of Quanergy's latest LiDAR system is its use of OPAs. OPAs are semiconductor photonic technologies developed for multiple uses (mainly LiDAR sensors) where random-access beam generation, pointing, and steering are required.
The general principle behind OPAs. Image used courtesy of Quanergy
This technology works using silicon elements placed in a 2D array. Each unit is a fully controllable pixel both in-phase and amplitude, allowing the beam to be steered electronically by creating a phase gradient over the surface, making OPAs truly solid-state because it doesn't have any moving parts.
For the use in LiDAR, OPAs might be able to overcome the limitations of the mechanical sensors while also having the potential to achieve greater resolution and fidelity.
Not only are silicon chips cheaper to produce than mechanical parts, but they're also smaller and consume much less energy. These benefits allow for seamless integration into many technologies without exhibiting interference themselves or disturbing the functionalities or aesthetic of the system in which it's embedded.
Now that the general concept of OPAs is better understood, let's dive into Quanergy's latest sensor.
Quanergy’s OPA-based LiDAR
The S3 Series LiDAR sensor developed by Quanergy is an OPA-based design manufactured using CMOS technology. Since engineers are already familiar with this type of semiconductor manufacturing, Quanergy believes that designers can easily scale its sensor for mass-market production utilizing a cost-effective process.
A concept representation that uses an emitter, receiver, and processor, along with OPAs for beamforming and steering. Screenshot used courtesy of Quanergy [video]
Quanergy partnered up with an Arizona company called ZEV (Zero Electric Vehicle), an EV solutions company that provides sustainable and accessible fleet electrification to cut down on carbon emissions and accelerate EV adoption, to demonstrate the sensor's functionality in question.
In the demonstration, a test vehicle was equipped with the OPA LiDAR sensor and regular cameras for terrain visuals. The test consisted of following a target vehicle in a bright setting at multiple distances ranging up to one hundred meters.
According to Quanergy, the demonstration of the OPA sensor showed significant advantages not only to mechanical LiDAR but also when compared to other solid-state LiDAR technologies.
The test vehicle was able to maintain safety at all times in a bright environment even when using a target object with only ten percent visibility, simulating objects that are otherwise very difficult to detect for other sensors.
Quanergy says that its S3 Series sensor can provide over 100,000 hours of mean time between failures, which is in the low thousands for mechanical LiDAR. Since this sensor was designed for the automotive industry, it aims to meet the strictest automotive regulation requirements for detecting objects and avoiding collisions. Its target price for mass-market production is $500 with plans for longer ranges, increased vertical field of view, and higher data rates.
The Future of LiDAR
The technology demonstrated by Quanergy could be employed in other industries and scientific fields and not just in autonomous vehicle driving. Previously, this technology looked like a large spinning device mounted on top of a vehicle. This test shows that LiDAR has the potential to become as small and unnoticeable as a credit card.
The ability to mass-produce these miniature and low-powered LiDAR sensors will open the door for future integration into already established infrastructures and systems. By eliminating many of the challenges that plague traditional LiDAR, solid-state OPA sensors might be critical to large-scale adoption and integration of the technology.
Interested in learning more about LiDAR? Find out more in the articles down below.