Rapid development of LiDAR technology isn’t slowing down in the foreseeable future. To meet demand in new markets, such as driverless cars and drones, significant resources are being focused on adding functionality and increasing manufacturing capacity. As LiDAR sensors become smaller, more accurate, more power-efficient and less expensive, multiple industries requiring real-time problem identification, sense-and-avoid capabilities and autonomous flight are being offered new opportunities for growth.

Focus on Primary Markets

Velodyne LiDAR Inc. is playing a major role in the growth of several industries that benefit from improved sensing capabilities. Having released its first LiDAR product, the HDL-64 Solid-State Hybrid LiDAR in 2005, Velodyne is well established in the global LiDAR sensor industry and continues to add to its product line. As LiDAR applications evolve, the California-based company is developing smaller, lighter and more powerful units.

There are three use cases for LiDAR: passive, active and autonomous. An example of passive use is a LiDAR sensor on a drone collecting data and storing data for post-processing. There are many markets that use passive collection today, such as agriculture, telecom and construction. Active use is when LiDAR is processed in real time for an application such as collision avoidance. This is made possible by faster, less energy-intensive, onboard processing power. Autonomous mode is being developed today to allow a car to cover long linear distances or drones to deliver packages. Autonomy requires advanced GPS and IMU so that the vehicle or drone “understands” where it is at all times.

At this time, Velodyne is addressing four primary markets: automotive, drones, industrial applications and mobile mapping. Mobile mapping with sensors mounted on ground vehicles was Velodyne’s original target market and this led to sensors to support autonomous driving, which is expected to be the largest LiDAR sector in terms of unit volume in a few years. The drone market is smaller than autonomous driving; however, small, lightweight LiDAR sensors are in demand now to help with the development of real-time mapping and improved situational awareness. Industrial applications such as warehouse logistics, equipment navigation and control, robotics, and other uses also benefit from LiDAR technology for improved efficiency and lower costs.

Shrink to Fit

Today, a typical LiDAR sensor is comprised of four parts: a spinning device with an array of solid state lasers on top, receivers — electronic components that sense the laser returns — optics that focus the light beam and the processing unit brain of the device that calculates the distance of the object. Velodyne’s 16-channel, 360-degree field of view (FOV) VLP-16 Puck unit, released in 2014, is the forerunner to Puck Hi-Res, which collects at a higher level of detail to better detect and discern objects, and Puck LITE, both released in 2016. Puck LITE, at only 590 grams in weight and featuring reduced power consumption, is integrated in several drone platforms, including the DJI M100 and M600 series.

In December 2016, Velodyne announced plans for a true solid-state LiDAR sensor, as opposed to a hybrid. The use of a monolithic gallium nitride (GaN) integrated circuit, developed in partnership with Efficient Power Conversion (EPC), consolidates components and enhances miniaturization while reducing cost.

“We are working on miniaturizing all four components of the LiDAR sensor,” says Harris Wang, strategic markets director at Velodyne LiDAR Inc. “Our goal is to continue making incremental improvements to our market-leading LiDAR technology, and hopefully in a few years we will be able to meet the form factor and weight requirement of all drone applications.”

Why LiDAR in Driverless Cars?

Driverless cars once sounded like science fiction, but the technology is coming together to make the concept a reality. Due to the complexity — architecture/software, regulations, vehicle and customer interface — it will still be years before we have fully autonomous vehicles on the road; however, large amounts of time and money are being invested by multiple groups to ensure consumer safety and long-term viability.

Velodyne’s experience with 3D mobile mapping makes it a valuable contributor as researchers seek ways to integrate available technology and build a completely driverless solution. After a $150 million investment from auto manufacturer Ford and Chinese Internet search provider Baidu in 2016, Velodyne is an integral part of Ford’s goal to produce a fully autonomous vehicle by the year 2021.

Different companies are experimenting with varying approaches to create the functionality for autonomous cars to operate safely and reliably. Some are developing “vision” capabilities to see like eyes, but this technology only works under ideal conditions. Radar is also used because it can sense objects far away and through obstacles; however, radar lacks resolution to help with object identification. LiDAR functions at all times regardless of light conditions, while producing a high enough resolution for object identification, so it fills in the gaps between vision and radar. Some combination of these technologies would cover most driving conditions.

“The ideal setup for cars is more lasers and less separation between lasers to achieve a denser point cloud,” Wang says. “We want to be able to see objects farther away to improve safety and reaction time. For example, the lasers will detect a traffic sign based on its reflectivity. Then, using classification, the raw point cloud is converted to an object. By incorporating artificial intelligence, appropriate actions are translated into real-world movements, such as braking and turning.”

Millions of Units to Meet Demand

Not too long ago, commercial LiDAR sensors were major investments, and cost between $70,000 and $80,000. Over time, prices have dropped so a unit like the VLP-16 can be purchased for around $8,000. With the advantages of solid-state technology and simplified architecture, and demand going up, prices are projected to come down even more dramatically in the next few years. The development of a full solid-state sensor, in conjunction with high-volume production, is expected to result in a subsystem cost of under $50 per unit.

“With fewer moving parts, the solid-state technology provides more reliability at a lower cost,” Wang says. “Miniaturization allows more flexibility in how and where to place the units, which will lead to new applications. We are preparing for a significant increase in demand for LiDAR products.”

In early 2017, Velodyne announced the opening of a 200,000-square-foot factory in San Jose, Calif., with extra space for the precise distance and ranging alignment process for LiDAR sensors as they come off the assembly line. The company expects to be producing millions of smaller, less expensive LiDAR units within three to five years.

Applicable to Many Markets

Markets for driverless cars, drones, mobile mapping and industrial solutions are growing and benefitting from LiDAR technology. LiDAR is also being used to meet a variety of needs in mining, geology, robotics, construction, telecom, agriculture and 3D modeling applications. Future applications could include real-time sense-and-avoid capabilities, traffic management, security and surveillance. LiDAR plays a significant role in many parts of our lives now, and is expected to become even more prevalent in the future.