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Self-Driving Startup Aurora Debuts its New Long-Range Lidar Called 'FirstLight'

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【Summary】Self-driving technology startup Aurora announced today its new in-house developed lidar system for its driverless vehicles. The lidar sensor is called "FirstLight" and it can see and track objects more quickly and from further away than other lidar sensors.

Eric Walz    Jul 08, 2020 4:00 PM PT
Self-Driving Startup Aurora Debuts its New Long-Range Lidar Called 'FirstLight'

Self-driving technology startup Aurora announced today its new in-house developed lidar system for its driverless vehicles. The lidar sensor is called "FirstLight" and it can see and track objects more quickly and from further away than other lidar sensors, Aurora claims.

Lidar is an acronym for "light detecting and ranging" and works by bouncing pulses of lasers off objects and measuring the time the light takes to reflect back to the sensor. From this, a 3D image can be rendered of the object, whether its a tree, person or another vehicle.

The technology is an important sensor for the development of autonomous vehicles, acting as the "eyes" of the vehicle for navigation. Most self-driving vehicles in development have a roof mounted lidar that rotates, sendling pulse of light 360 degrees around the vehicle to identify nearby objects and creating a 3D view of the surroundings.

Lidar is also an essential sensor being used in vehicle advanced driver assist systems (ADAS), such as automated cruise control, collision avoidance systems and emergency braking systems offered, all of which are offered on many new vehicles today.

Aurora's FirstLight Lidar will be used on Aurora's next-generation test vehicles. The company says that its FirstLight lidar will allow its self-driving vehicle perception systems to see and track objects that are faster moving and farther away with greater precision than the standard lidar systems available today.

Aurora said it needed a longer range lidar for its "Aurora Driver" autonomous driving software and hardware stack, but it didn't exist yet. So the company acquired lidar pioneer Blackmore in 2019 and the two companies co-developed the FirstLight lidar for Aurora's specific needs.

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The FirstLight lidar mounted on the roof of an Aurora self-driving vehicle.

Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) Lidar

Aurora said that it chose Blackmore because of its pioneering work in Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) lidar, a next generation lidar technology that can improve the perception capabilities of its self-driving vehicles. Aurora also said that Blackmore's technology will allow it to deliver a more cost-effective autonomous driving platform than even the best systems currently on the market.

Prior to being acquired by Aurora, Blackmore spent over a decade developing FMCW lidar for the U.S. Department of Defense, but switched focus to supply lidar to automotive OEMs and startups working on self-driving cars. Blackmore received backing from Toyota AI Ventures and BMW iVentures, the venture capital arms of the Toyota Research Institute and German automaker BMW.

Blackmore is headquartered in Bozeman, Montana. Aurora even opened an office there so the two companies can work more closely together on integrating Blackmore's FMCW lidar technology into the Aurora Driver autonomous driving hardware & software stack.

FMCW vs AM Lidar

Standard or "AM lidar" works by emitting brief pulses of light at a fixed frequency and measures the time its takes for the laser beams to reflect back to the lidar sensor. With this type of lidar, the farther away an object is, the longer it takes for the light to return. Which means that objects which are further away or moving cannot be tracked as precisely, especially in low light situations.

FMCW lidar however, uses a continuous-wave of laser pulses and changes the frequency of the light at regular intervals, thus the term "frequency-modulated." This allows developers of self-driving vehicles to better determine the precise location and velocity of objects using the Doppler effect. 

FMCW lidar is more accurate for tracking objects that are moving, such as other vehicles on the road. It can even be used to determine if an object is moving closer or moving away, which is especially helpful for autonomous vehicles to navigate. It's also better at detecting objects in low light situations, including in rain and fog.

FMCW lidar sensors allow the Aurora Driver to see well beyond 300 meters even on targets that don't reflect much light, such as a pedestrian wearing dark clothing at night. Aurora's FirstLight lidar is also more powerful since the sensors are single photon sensitive, meaning they can detect the smallest amount of light possible. 

Aurora's FirstLight lidar also operates around the higher 1550nm wavelength band, allowing the sensors to emit stronger light pulses while still meeting eye safety standards, as laser light emitted from a vehicle can be harmful to the human eye.

Most AM lidar systems operate near the 900nm wavelength band, requiring them to limit the laser light output to this frequency for eye safety reasons, which results in poorer performance in low light situations. This is not ideal since self-driving vehicles need to be able to operate at night.

With a longer range, FMCW lidar is especially suitable for self-driving trucks traveling on highways, as trucks require a much longer stopping distance than a passenger car. Therefore the lidar must be able to track and identify objects that are much further ahead on the road (over 300 meters).

Aurora was founded in 2017 and is headquartered in Silicon Valley. the company has become one of the leading developers of autonomous driving technology. E-commerce giant Amazon is also an investor in Aurora

Aurora was founded by three industry veterans, including Chris Urmson, who formally led the Google self-driving car team, Sterling Anderson, who led the teams that launched the Tesla's Model X and the company's Autopilot automated driving system, as well as Drew Bagnell, who spent two decades in the field as a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University as well as at Uber, where he was instrumental in developing the perception systems for Uber's first self-driving cars.   

The company set out to build the self-driving system it calls "Aurora Driver" and with the collective experience of its founders quickly developed a reputation as one of the most promising self-driving technology startups in Silicon Valley. Aurora's autonomous technology combines AI, data visualization, cloud infrastructure, and deep learning inference.

The Aurora Driver is an entire software stack and is designed to be added to existing vehicles, including autonomous delivering vehicles, or long-haul self-driving trucks. 

Aurora has successfully installed its Aurora Driver in six different vehicles it said, ranging from sedans, Chrysler Pacifica minivans and self-driving trucks.

Not all developers of self-driving vehicles feel that lidar is a necessary sensor for autonomous vehicles to navigate with, among them is Tesla CEO Elon Musk. 

During Musk's Autonomy Investor Day presentation last year, the mercurial CEO said that lidar is "a fool's errand," adding that it's "expensive" and "unnecessary." Musk said that anyone relying on lidar is "doomed." Instead of lidar, Tesla's Autopilot relies primarily on forward facing cameras combined with AI-powered computer vision-based software.

Despite Musk's view of lidar, most developers of driverless vehicles do not share the same sentiment. Dozens of new lidar startups have emerged in the past five years to supply the auto industry as the race to commercialize self-driving vehicles continues. 

Last month, Aurora announced it signed an agreement with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to develop self-driving commercial vehicles outfitted with its Aurora Driver. By working directly with FCA, the Aurora Driver will be added to the commercial vehicles during production, making them "autonomous ready" right off the assembly line.

Aurora plans to use its newly developed FirstLight lidar on its fleet of self-driving development vehicles by this summer.

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