Riding on Laser Beams

Albert Einstein once asked the beautiful question how it would be if he were riding on a light beam. And since then, this questions has kept scientists busy, created new scientific fields, and keeps giving us more and more difficult challenges for creating a universal quantum theory.

Light in it’s different forms is today an important component for the development of autonomous cars. On the one hand we are using the visible spectrum, in form of multiple cameras in the car, on the other hand we have a new sensor type called LiDAR.

LiDAR is short for ‚Light Detection and Ranging’. An arrangement of up to 128 lasers spins around its own axis and measures the distance to objects the laser light hits. This way the sensor can create a three dimensional map of the surroundings up to several hundred meters. That goes for cars in 360 degree angle. The principle is like that of a radar, but instead of radar waves, laser light is used.  Per second thirty and more full 3D images are created.

The best known LiDAR company today is Velodyne, based in San Jose. Initially, the company manufactured loud speakers, but when the founders heard about the DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous cars, the quickly realized that they’d need a new sensor system. The LiDARs were born. And they right away became the standard for autonomous vehicles, which makes it now surprise that the huge demand has forced Velodyne to open a new manufacturing facility that can produce one million LiDARs per year.

Google-sister Waymo does not count on others with that technology, the company develops them in-house. Not least the lawsuit against Uber was almost entirely based on the theft of proprietary documents about LiDARs.

The price of a complex LiDAR-system was in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars just a few years ago, but the prices have since decreased, and it is expected that they decrease even more.


Also German startups are involved in the development of LiDAR-systems. The Munich-based start-up Blickfeld was founded in 2017 and just raised another investment round of 4.3 million dollars, which brings the total investment up to 10 million.


Blickfeld’s solid-state-LiDAR is also used for autonomous cars. More than 200 meters with a frequency of 10 to 100 Hertz at a horizontal angle of 120 degree, and a vertical angle of 30 degree are covered buy the LiDAR.

LiDARs today are also being used for robots, drones, and surveillance. Here is a video that shows how the LiDAR is used for counting by-passers.

This article has also been published in German.

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