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Montana-based startup Blackmore raised $3.5 million to build better lidar for driverless cars

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【Summary】Blackmore in Bozeman, Montana recently completed a successful Series-A funding round of $3.5 million, to develop a more advanced lidar system for autonomous vehicles.

Original Claire    Dec 22, 2016 11:16 PM PT
Montana-based startup Blackmore raised $3.5 million to build better lidar for driverless cars

A US-based tech company in Bozeman, Montana recently completed a successful Series-A funding round of $3.5 million, to develop a more advanced lidar system for autonomous vehicles.

The company, named Blackmore Sensors and Analytics Inc., is backed by two investors. They are Next Frontier Capital, a Montana-based venture capital company primarily focusing on supporting local technology companies, and Millennium Technology Value Partners, an establishment that successfully invested in a series of well-known tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Alibaba Group.

"The Blackmore team has decades-long expertise in developing high sensitivity Lidar technologies for the defense industry," said Sam Schwerin, managing partner at Millennium. "Unlike other startups in this field, Blackmore's Lidars are operable right now and are producing data that meet the exacting standards required by the autonomous vehicle industry." 

What separates a vehicle's autonomous capability apart from traditional human-driven vessels greatly depends on the car's "eyes"— radar, camera or lidar. Whether it can clearly detect a vehicle's surroundings and make accurate judgements is the key to a mature self-driving system. Radar and camera are the "dynamic duo" of many current driverless cars, as they are relatively cheaper than lidar. However, lidar, as the master of 3D mapping, which uses laser light to measure distance. It can scan more than 100 meters in all directions, and generate a precise map depicting both distance and objects, thus providing a much higher safety standard.

Blackmore is an expert in lidar and was spun from Bridger Photonics, an research and development firm originally specializing in lidar development for micron-precise laser cutting and welding. What makes the Montana-based company stand out among other lidar-developing competitors, is the utilization of frequency modulation rather than amplitude modulation.  By comparison, Blackmore's lidar system can not only understand how far away an object is, but also know how it is moving.

"Because we simultaneously get range to target, and how fast a target is moving, we can get a lot of information without having to do a lot of extra computation." said Blackmore President and co-founder Randy Reibel, according to TechCrunch.

He added that this ability is especially important for autonomous vehicles, as it can quickly tell if there's someone walking quickly or slowly at a crosswalk, or if there's a person riding a bicycle.

However, for lidar systems, the biggest challenge lies in its high cost, as it requires labor-intensive manufacturing processes. With new financial backing, Blackmore strives to produce its lidar engine using semiconductor processes that would enable large quantities of sensors to be manufactured at a very low cost.

The company plans to deliver prototype automotive lidar and deployable surveillance systems in mid-2017. In addition to research and development, investors are hoping the company could use its technological advantage to build relationships with major automakers, original equipment manufacturers and other startups focused on driverless technology. 

Currently, there are a few well-funded lidar makers on the market, such as Quanergy and Velodyne. But Blackmore's defense background and experience in lidar for security applications makes investors confident that it will be a rising star in the near future.

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