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​Lidar Startup Sense Photonics Announces Development Program With a Major Detroit-based OEM

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【Summary】Lidar startup Sense Photonics announced on Tuesday a development program with a major Detroit-based automotive OEM for low cost, scalable lidar that can be added to production vehicles. As more new vehicles come equipped with advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) and automated driving capabilities, lidar developers are vying to secure deals with global automakers and OEM suppliers for the laser-based perception technology.

Eric Walz    Jun 29, 2021 12:30 PM PT
​Lidar Startup Sense Photonics Announces Development Program With a Major Detroit-based OEM
A 3D image produced by a lidar unit helps autonomous vehicles safety navigate. (Photo: Sense Photonics)

As more new vehicles are coming equipped with advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) and automated driving capabilities, a growing list of promising lidar startups are vying to secure deals with major global automakers to supply the laser-based perception technology at scale. 

Among the companies are lidar pioneer Velodyne Lidar Inc., Luminar, Innoviz Technologies, Quanergy and Sense Photonics. Luminar, for example, is partnering with automaker Volvo Cars to integrate its lidar into production vehicles

Now lidar developer Sense Photonics announced on Tuesday a development program with a major Detroit-based automotive OEM for low cost, scalable lidar that can be added to production vehicles. The OEM partner was not disclosed.

Sense Photonics says its lidar is the world's first flexible, scalable, high-performance automotive platform to enable widespread ADAS and AV system adoption for any vehicle. 

"As our focus shifts from technology development to commercialization and production, this development agreement is a clear sign that Sense's flexible architecture and world-class performance are the right solution for mass market automotive OEMs," said Shauna McIntyre, Sense CEO. 

What is Lidar?

Lidar is a laser perception technology that acts as an extra set of eyes for an autonomous vehicle and to support ADAS features being offered in newer vehicle models. 

A lidar unit works by emitting pulses of invisible laser light that bounce off solid objects. The light reflected off solid objects, such as other vehicles and pedestrians, is used to create a 3D rendering of the environment around a vehicle for safe navigation. By also measuring the time-of-flight its takes the light to reflect back, velocity and direction of moving objects can be measured as well.  

For autonomous vehicle or ADAS applications, lidar data is often combined with radar and cameras to capture in detail a vehicle's immediate surroundings for safe navigation, even in busy urban areas.

Sense Photonics, is a developer of what's known as "flash lidar", which captures an entire field of view with a single pulse of laser light, similar to the flash of a digital camera. 

Whereas traditional scanning lidar techniques generate an image frame line-by-line by raster scanning like a TV or computer monitor, which leaves horizontal gaps in the image that reduces overall resolution.

The Sense lidar system was designed to meet the needs of the entire industry, while also addressing cost concerns. The lidar's resolution can also be fine-tuned for short, medium, or longer range sensing applications of up to 200 meters using the same lidar platform. 

The lidar unit is solid-state with no moving parts to wear out. These solid-state scanning lidars use electronics to steer their laser beam without mechanical motion, and meet the durability, cost and reliability requirements of the auto industry.

"As we set out to design this platform, our team realized that mass adoption of lidar will only be realized at price points considerably less than today's lidar systems," said McIntyre.  

The Sense Photonics lidar uses a patented and proprietary vertical cavity surface-emitting (VCSEL) laser emitter and single photon avalanche detectors (SPAD) receiver technologies, which are also used in Apple's latest iPhone. 

The VCSEL laser array houses tens of thousands of lasers on a single layer that's paired with a proprietary single-photon avalanche diode (SPAD) silicon receiver, which can detect photon-level detail with every scan and return. Sense Photonics says its platform delivers the richest data point clouds at the highest points per second (PPS) of any automotive lidar system currently on the market.

"We built a scalable platform using our 100 percent solid-state SPAD and VCSEL components, similar to the Lidar found in the latest Apple iPhone," said McIntyre. "These proven components deliver not just scalability and cost-efficiency, but the durability and reliability needed for automotive production."

The Sense Photonics lidar platform can provide more than 10 million data points per second with each scan, which is around five times higher than legacy lidar systems, according to the company. This increase in 3D lidar data density can improve performance of autonomous driving systems as well as ADAS.

According to Sense Photonics, it provides vehicles with data-rich images to better classify objects in each scan and act on that data 3-5 times faster than other systems.  This allows moving vehicles and other objects around a vehicle to be imaged without any motion distortion or data gaps. 

Motion distortion can occur when a lidar unit scans the environment while moving at higher speeds and can lead to smaller objects being missed, such as a piece of debris in the roadway. But flash lidar and its higher resolution can help mitigate this effect.

"From a safety standpoint, motion blur and reaction time are critical issues when a vehicle is traveling at highway speeds," said Sense Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer, Scott Burroughs. "An autonomous system requires precise depth data in real-time to be aware of the vehicle's surroundings, particularly in dynamic environments. Data gaps found in legacy scanning systems increase the likelihood to miss small objects, parking lot gates, or even road debris. Only a true solid-state flash Lidar can provide uniform high-resolution information across the entire field-of-view without motion blur or data gaps, which is exactly what we've developed."

Sense's solid-state design is also flexible enough to better integrate into vehicles. This flexibility allows the company to tailor solutions for individual automotive customer needs with significantly less development and validation time, the company said.

Sense's emitter and receiver are housed in a unibody design, but do not need to be co-located on the vehicle. Its small enough to be installed inside headlamps or behind the windshield. This allows automakers to integrate the lidar more seamlessly with the vehicle's styling in mind.  

"Bulky, bolt-on sensors will never be a part of Sense's product offerings," said McIntyre. "We want to make sure our customers' vehicles stay true to the designs their customers know and love."

In addition to today's announcement, Sense announced it's in final discussions on other programs with a number of other major North American and European OEMs and autonomous vehicle providers, as well as leading global Tier-1 automotive suppliers.

Sense Photonics' proprietary lidar technology is protected by nearly 300 patents and applications. The company has offices in San Francisco, Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, Detroit, Edinburgh, and Jerusalem and is backed by leading VC firms and strategic investors.

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