Lumotive Announces a New ‘Beam-Steering' Lidar for Autonomous Vehicles

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【Summary】Lumotive, a Seattle-based lidar startup developing technology for autonomous vehicles, recently introduced a disruptive “beam-steering technology”, which the company says will significantly improve the performance, reliability and cost of lidar systems for the emerging self-driving car industry.

Eric Walz    May 08, 2019 6:58 PM PT
Lumotive Announces a New ‘Beam-Steering' Lidar for Autonomous Vehicles

Lumotive, a Seattle-based lidar startup developing technology for autonomous vehicles, recently introduced a disruptive "beam-steering technology", which the company says will significantly improve the performance, reliability and cost of lidar systems for the emerging self-driving car industry.

Lumotive is targeting the commercial robo-taxi market with its low-cost, automotive grade lidar that can be mass produced. Companies working on autonomous ride-hailing include Argo AI, General Motors' Cruise division, Aurora and Google's Waymo subsidiary. The company is backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Lumotive's patented system uses Liquid Crystal Metasurfaces (LCM) and silicon fabrication which the company says achieves unmatched levels of manufacturing efficiency while simultaneously delivering long range, resolution and frame rate. These fine-tunable liquid crystals steer the lidar's laser beam electronically—with no moving parts

"Lumotive's solution is ideal for automakers and Tier-1's seeking safer yet more cost-effective perception solutions for their vehicles," said Lumotive co-founder and CEO, Dr. William Colleran.

"Our lidar sensors benefit tremendously from the unique attributes of beam-steering LCMs which simultaneously offer large optical aperture, wide field-of-view and fast scanning while having no moving parts. LCMs deliver the combination of performance and commercial viability that will finally eliminate barriers to adoption of lidar for both ADAS and autonomous vehicles."

For the development of autonomous vehicles, lidar has emerged as a vital perception technology. Lidar technology can also support Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), which includes systems that keep a vehicle centered in a lane, enable automatic braking or collision avoidance.

Lidar systems measure the distance of objects by firing laser beam pulses and measuring the time it takes for those pulses to travel and reflect back from objects. It can be compared to pointing a flashlight at a mirror and measuring how long it takes for the beam of light to reflect back. The "time of flight" of the laser beam is used to accurately calculate the distance from the object.

A lidar system creates a 3D perceptual map, or "point cloud," of its surroundings by scanning, or "beam steering," laser pulses across its two-dimensional field-of-view, with the third dimension derived from the distance measured to an object at a given horizontal and vertical position. Up to 128 lasers can be stacked on top of each other to generate a higher resolution point cloud.

Lidar has proven critical for autonomous vehicles because the technology can accurately locate objects to within a few inches at ranges of hundreds of yards. Typical lidars for use in self-driving vehicles have a usable range of up to 200 meters.

Limitations of Mechanical Scanning Lidar

Currently, most lidar systems for autonomous driving development rely on mechanical scanning, which offer less reliability and form factor. Mechanical system with wearable parts are not suited for use in the automotive industry and their design limits the performance of existing systems.

Lumotive's revolutionary beam-steering technology uses LCMs — semiconductor chips that steer the laser pulses (or beam) based on the light-bending principles of metamaterials, which Lumotive says is a first for lidar. The LCM's are solid state and have no moving parts.

Lumotive's LCMs have large apertures (25 x 25 mm) to improve lidar perception while benefiting from the economics of semiconductor manufacturing to enable low cost systems.

Lumotive believes its "beam steering" is the missing link required for high performance and commercially viable lidar systems. Traditionally, lidar relied upon mechanical assemblies, which are bulky and can be unreliable Newer types of lidar sensors utilize MEMS (micro-electrical mechanical systems) mirrors or optical phased arrays.

Optical phased arrays are used to precisely steer a beam of electromagnetic waves without using any moving parts. The basic principle is to use an array of transmitters and then control the phase of the wave that each transmitter produces.

According to Lumotive, both of these lidar designs lack the performance needed for autonomous vehicles due to the small optical aperture of MEMS mirrors and the low efficiency of phased arrays.

Lumotive's LCM chips contain no moving parts and are fabricated using mature semiconductor manufacturing along with liquid crystal display packaging to enable a commercially viable lidar system with low cost, high reliability and small size. Lumotive's compact LCMs can be integrated into small form-factor systems, suitable for applications outside of the automotive industry.

"The LCM chip is the holy grail of lidar, finally enabling beam steering using a semiconductor chip but efficiently and over a large optical aperture that's hundreds of times larger than a MEMS mirror or an optical phased array," said Lumotive co-founder and CTO, Dr. Gleb Akselrod. "Our large aperture is like having a bigger telescope, allowing us to see dramatically farther than other systems."

"Lumotive's beam-steering technology is the culmination of years of fundamental research into controlling electromagnetic waves using artificially structured metasurfaces," said David R. Smith, the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University and a pioneer in metamaterials research.

"Lumotive is the first to develop dynamically tunable metamaterials for optics. Their development is a tremendous advance in metamaterials research, as well as a breakthrough technology that addresses pressing and unmet needs in lidar and other optical systems."

Alexis Debray, PhD., Technology & Market Analyst at Yole Développement (Yole), expects strong growth of lidar technology for the transportation segment, including robotic vehicles and ADAS applications. He believes that Lumotive's unique metamaterials-based technology is well-positioned to serve this market.

"The lidar markets dedicated to Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and robotic car applications are showing significant growth between 2018 and 2024, from $721 million to $6.3 billion," said Debray.

Lumotive said that Initial production units will be available to select customers for beta testing in the third quarter of 2019.

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