Demystifying LiDAR, Part I
What to make of Velodyne’s shift toward solid-state LiDAR for automotive applications
By Stéphane Duquet, Strategic Marketing Manager, LeddarTech
Last week, Velodyne, the leading supplier of mechanical scanning LiDARs for autonomous driving (AD) applications, announced a significant shift in its product development strategy away from mechanical scanning and towards solid-state designs.
According to Velodyne, “LiDAR sensors that leverage this new [Solid-state] design will be less expensive, easier to integrate due to their smaller size, and more reliable as a result of fewer moving parts”, in essence conceding that the road to using mechanical LiDAR designs beyond autonomous car prototypes may well be facing a dead-end when it comes to implementations for mass-market vehicles.
This move will not necessarily come as a big surprise to industry insiders, as most OEMs and observers already acknowledged the “necessary inevitability” of the shift towards solid-state for automotive LiDAR applications, due among other things to the prohibitive price tag of mechanical scanning LiDARs and the reduced reliability induced by its moving parts. Still, this represents a revealing admission coming from such a prominent leader in mechanical scanning LiDARs. With this radical shift from its core portfolio, the LiDAR manufacturer is basically corroborating the fact that solid-state LiDAR is the way to go when it comes to automotive LiDAR systems.
As mentioned in an IEEE article reviewing the news release, “The reason that LiDAR is expensive is because it generally involves a bunch of high quality optical components (lasers, sensors, that sort of thing) all hooked up together inside of a housing that spins (…), which puts them out of reach for any consumer automobiles”. And indeed, solid-state LiDARs have the capacity to provide the much needed solutions to mechanical scanners’ limitations.
Scanning LiDARs are big and expensive (photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum)
The challenging road to automotive-grade solid-state LiDARs
Yet, achieving LiDAR performances that meet automotive OEM’s stringent requirements and wide fields-of-view without relying on mechanical scanning is not an easy task. Solid-state optical designs generally suffer from inherent optical inefficiencies at the emission and the reception, which significantly reduce the system’s signal intensity, limiting their range and overall performance compared to mechanical scanners. Therefore, the challenge of optimizing a solid-state LiDAR’s performance is significantly higher than for mechanical scanning LiDARs, which benefit from the brute force of its collimated lasers and concentrated signal of its highly focused optical receiver.
This is where the unique Leddar technology comes in and becomes a key differentiator. Developed by LeddarTech over the last decade, Leddar technology significantly increases solid-state LiDAR systems’ performance using patented algorithms to efficiently acquire, sequence and digitally process the optical signals, thereby significantly improving sensitivity, immunity to noise and data extraction capabilities.
LeddarVu is a small, affordable and high performance solid-state LiDAR platform by LeddarTech
The result is a much cleaner digitized waveform with very low noise levels, which enables the rapid delivery of accurate measurements, extends the effective range and measurement reliability, and provides the sensor with superior lateral target discrimination and the critical capability to detect multiple objects simultaneously within the sensor’s field of view.
Leddar technology is incorporated into the LCA2 and LCA3 LeddarCore chipsets and is an integral part of the new solid-state LiDAR designs to be presented at CES this year (more about this below).
What about GaN technology for LiDARs?
Velodyne’s solid-state announcement also touts a new approach that leverages a monolithic gallium nitride (GaN) integrated circuit, developed in partnership with Efficient Power Conversion (EPC). According to supplier EPC, its GaN technology is 10 times faster, significantly smaller, and with higher performance at costs comparable to silicon-based MOSFETs, making them highly attractive for applications involving ADAS / AD LiDARs.
GaN integrated circuit is indeed a very attractive technology for LiDAR development. It is worth mentioning that other LiDAR vendors have also been developing new LIDARs using EPC’s GaN technology, which should be part of upcoming LiDAR designs. The use of GaN in the automotive LiDAR arena is not in itself a distinctive innovation, and GaN’s application to LiDAR only covers a small portion of the overall LiDAR system.
What to expect in 2017
For the automotive market, time is of the essence. “The idea is, you want to be able to build something that meets the needs for the specific field of view requirements, and do it at a reasonable cost, and we think we have the ability to do that” 1, states Anand Gopalan, vice president of R&D for Velodyne LIDARs. Yet, catching up with other specialized LiDAR suppliers which are many years ahead in hardware and software optimization may be an uphill battle and definitely involves a steep learning curve for any new solid-state LiDAR player.
The LiDAR manufacturer also hints us that it doesn’t completely gives up on mechanical scanning yet: “In the case of the full autonomous market, we may take that engine, and put it into a rotating solution, whereas in the ADAS market, we may put it in a non-rotating solution”, specifies Gopalan. While a hybrid rotating system leveraging a solid-state core may help reduce the size and cost of LiDARs aimed at semi-autonomous and autonomous driving applications, the issue of reliability of the mechanical components in the harsh automotive environment will remain whole.
While Velodyne remains vague about the expected performances or a possible timeframe to market for the future designs (“a release date announcement will be made in 2017”), LeddarTech is well on its way towards providing solid-state LiDAR solutions for both ADAS and AD applications. As stated in our latest news release, LeddarTech is showcasing three new 2D and 3D solid-state LiDAR solutions at CES 2017 (Las Vegas, January 5-8, 2017). Presented publicly for the first time, these fully-functional systems demonstrate the scalability of Leddar technology and its ability to meet the high levels of performance, resolution, and cost-effectiveness required by Tier-1 and OEMs for mass-market autonomous driving applications. These LiDAR systems’ production versions will offer resolutions of up to 512×64 on a field of view of 120×20 degrees, and detection ranges that exceed 200 m for pedestrians and well over 300 m for vehicles. LeddarTech will be accepting orders from select automotive clients for delivery of development samples starting in May 2017.
From our end, the vision is clearer than ever. From its inception, LeddarTech elected to focus solely on leveraging a solid-state approach using readily available, cost-effective optical technologies and reaching unmatched performance levels through advanced software optimization. These LiDAR solutions have been commercially deployed successfully since 2010. Today, LeddarTech provides a proven technology built on unique digital signal processing capabilities, along with an extensive know-how in solid-state LiDAR sensor & application development. LeddarTech has the most compelling solutions to enable OEMs and Tier-1 providers in the development of solid-state LiDARs which meet the requirements of mass-market automotive deployments in the shortest possible time frame.
This uniquely positions LeddarTech to be the first to market with solid-state LiDAR solutions for all levels of LiDAR applications – from ADAS implementations (Levels 1-2) to the highest levels of autonomous driving (Levels 3-5). We invite you to visit us at CES 2017 and witness today the future of solid-state LiDAR for autonomous driving.