Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Can LIDAR Eradicate Vehicle Accidents?

Parent Category: 2022 HFE

By Tom Perkins, HFE Senior Technical Editor

Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) is a means for determining range (distance) by targeting an object with a pulsed laser and measuring the time for reflected light to return to the co-located receiver. (See Figure 1).

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Figure 1 • Simple LIDAR Range Equation

(Courtesy RCraig09 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89646954)

Current state-of-the-art LIDAR systems typically operate at one of two wavelengths. They are 905 nanometers (nm) and 1550 nm. This represents respective frequencies of 331.262 THz and 193.414 THz. Development of LIDAR started in the early 1960s shortly after the laser was invented. The technology now exists in numerous forms. One is sensor-based LIDAR in the form of compact scanners. These are considered entry-level technology as they are typically used for routine area monitoring tasks. LIDAR sensor products function well even in high ambient light. This type of LIDAR is used in some autonomous vehicle applications, but it is also increasingly used for basic applications on the factory floor. The LIDAR sensor creates an invisible plane of detection and can be oriented to detect the presence of objects that should not be there like an overfilled container, broken part, or misplaced object. This is especially useful in a packaging and production environment. LIDAR can also be employed in bin-picking and pass-through detection applications. This permits manufacturers to monitor the assembly of products and assist quality control. If an operator reaches into an incorrect bin, an alarm is activated. Previously this was often performed with opto-electronic light curtains. A single LIDAR device is much simpler to install.

Multi-Layer Three-Dimensional LIDAR

Three-dimensional (3-D) LIDAR also known as multi-layer or multi-channel provides not just a single plane like two-dimensional LIDAR, but three more planes that provide additional detection (Figure 2). This can be used to detect objects at a long distance with high resolution. For example, if an object is not correctly aligned with the plane, another plane may detect it. This allows more flexibility so that if objects are not perfectly aligned or always in the identical position, multi-layer LIDARs can adapt to the physical scene.

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Figure 2 • Multi-Layer LIDAR (Courtesy SICK, INC.)


A common reason to use multi-layer LIDAR is to detect pallet overhang in a packaging environment. It can be used to scan pallets to look for any rogue objects. It can also ensure that the pallet is in order and that no objects are overflowing that might get caught up in moving equipment, puncture stretch wrap, or that are not properly aligned.

Solid-State LIDAR

Another type of LIDAR is solid state. Instead of a single plane or multiple planes like the previous two, this type of LIDAR provides a camera view of everything it looks at. With this technology, a three-dimensional (3-D) snapshot is taken of the surrounding area that goes beyond just an image. It also provides the depth or distance associated with each “pixel” of that image. So, by modulating the wavelength of the LIDAR laser, it can be used to make digital 3-D representations of the target objects. A typical street vehicle image is shown in Figure 3.

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Figure 3 • Typical LIDAR Image (Courtesy Luminar)


LIDAR on Autonomous Vehicles

LIDAR (also often abbreviated as LiDAR, Lidar, or lidar) is one of three major autonomous vehicle sensors. The technology enables self-driving vehicles to see more details than they would normally detect with radars or cameras. The 2022 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in the first week of January in Las Vegas, Nevada featured a unique vehicle from Volvo Cars. Along with a Daimler truck, the automobile was shown at the Luminar Technologies display booth – not your average exhibit square footage! Luminar was featured on Fox Business Channel, The Claman Countdown on January 5. Host Liz Claman interviewed the founder of Luminar, CEO Austin Russell, a Stanford dropout and self-made billionaire. Volvo, the near century old Swedish car company, long known for safety features, displayed an electric crossover automobile that they call Concept Recharge (Figure 4).

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Figure 4 • Volvo Concept Recharge Automobile.


Luminar Technologies Inc. (NASDAQ: LAZR), founded in December 2012, has about four hundred employees with headquarters in Orlando, Florida. They also have facilities in Colorado Springs, Detroit, Munich, and Palo Alto. Luminar announced that their laser sensors will be installed as standard equipment on the new electrified Volvos that will be capable of autonomous driving. The sensors can be seamlessly integrated into the roofline. Volvo said it will apply for an autonomous test vehicle permit in California, where the vehicle is being launched. Automotive technology developer Zenseact is partnering with Volvo and Luminar to provide software, additional sensors, and a computer system to power Volvo’s Ride Pilot automated driving feature. The companies did not announce when the battery-powered model goes on sale or when Volvo’s Ride Pilot subscription service would begin.

There are several other players in this automotive LIDAR “space.”  These include Aeva, AEye Technologies, Baraja, Innoviz Technologies, Ibeo Automotive Systems, Microvision Inc., Ouster, Quanergy Systems, and Velodyne LIDAR. Even with all this competition, Luminar’s CEO Russell recently stated: “This is the first series production, commercial (LIDAR) deployment of its kind—not even just for us, but for the broader industry.”

LIDAR’s ability to capture images of its surroundings in three dimensions, in daylight or darkness, has made it a critical technology for self-driving developers. Velodyne LIDAR pioneered spinning, multilaser lidar sensors to create detailed “point cloud” maps. Luminar claims their approach which operates at the longer wavelength, 1550 nm, is a lower-cost, single-laser system with 120-degree field of view that requires less energy to operate and makes it easier to integrate into a vehicle’s roofline or body. Luminar says its Iris sensor detects objects 250 meters ahead of a vehicle that is traveling at highway speed and will cost between 500 and 1,000 USD per vehicle, depending on production quantities. Mats Moberg, Volvo Cars’ Senior Vice President for R & D, reiterated Mr. Russell’s remarks in a statement that having Luminar’s LIDAR standard in their new fully electric SUV is a game changer for Volvo Cars, as well as for automotive safety and autonomous driving.

From the time when the first Velodyne LIDAR sensors began appearing on the automated vehicles in the DARPA Grand Challenge, circa 2005, one of the questions asked was how to get rid of those unsightly protrusions on the roof? Some companies like Waymo have made them sleeker looking but is reported to have dropped LIDAR from its sensor package. Luminar has taken a different approach creating sensors that they claim have better performance while making them nearly disappear. That is the idea behind Luminar’s Blade concept for integrating its “Iris” LIDAR into the roofline of vehicles such as a robotic autonomous taxi van called robotaxi (See Figure 5).

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Figure 5 • Rendering of a Robotaxi Design with Integrated Luminar Sensor, Blade (Courtesy Luminar).


Luminar expects its lidar sensors to be installed on utilitarian vehicles like robotaxis, they will also be on autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles that consumers are expected to purchase. There is some controversy about the appearance of the sensor apertures. Ugly, or weird is not usually appealing to buyers. The Luminar LIDAR sensor is scheduled for a production launch on some new Volvos shortly and then followed by other programs with Daimler Trucks and SAIC Motor in China. The aperture assembly is slim and compact compared to the typical rotating sensors made by competitors. One format is slightly over twelve-inches wide and about two-inches tall (See Figure 6).

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Figure 6 • Luminar’s Blade Design System Places all its Lidar Technology into a Single Panel above the Windshield. (Photo Courtesy Luminar)



Luminar Blade autonomous taxi concept uses four LIDARs, one on each side, a Luminar Blade truck concept would put three lidars on the front of the vehicle “for long-range sensing in all directions.” Luminar said it would be retrofittable onto Class 8 (GVWR exceeding 33,000 pounds) trucks (Figure 7) like the one on display at CES 2022.

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Figure 7 • The Blade System also includes a System for Trucks that is — but intentionally not quite – Invisible. (Photo Courtesy Luminar)



Aesthetics of LIDAR

Regarding aesthetics, Luminar is not trying to make self-driving cars look like every other automobile. But the giant spinning racks on most autonomous vehicles, will go away with their technology. Luminar touts that instead they have technology built into a single strip sticking out like a Cyclops visor a few inches above the windshield. Rather than a constant standard scan pattern used by most LIDARs including rotating sensors, Luminar can change the scan pattern to paint more laser pulses on objects of interest, achieving a density of up to three hundred points per degree squared. It thus has a subtle way to project “this is a car with self-driving technology inside.” This is an especially useful thing on the road and a visor, used on Toyota’s RAV4, provides a distinct status symbol that Luminar thinks might help convince people to buy autonomous vehicles.

The Blade system includes redesigns for taxis and trucks, integrating the Iris system into the roof in diverse ways for each vehicle. Flexibility is key according to Mr. Russell. Because autonomous vehicles will have so many use cases and specific needs, and because the shift to electric is causing an industrywide modification in car design in general. So these LIDAR systems need to work and fit on vehicles of all shapes and sizes.

Luminar suggests that their LIDAR systems can be useful for more than just autonomy. A good LIDAR system could make crash avoidance systems much better and become a selling point for auto manufacturers before the full-self-driving future becomes reality. Also Luminar is working with Airbus to figure out how their LIDAR systems might work for flying cars and taxis. There are still many challenges ahead and fortunately competition encourages innovation. It is suggested that “gee-whiz whirligigs” may turn into something barely noticed by the general public.

While there are some similarities to the approach taken by Volvo Cars to that of Tesla, the electric vehicle maker has not sought approval from California regulators to operate its passenger models in the state as autonomous vehicles. Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder, is a well-known skeptic of LIDAR, a position that no other major auto or self-driving technology developer appears to share. He is reported to have declared that LIDAR is a “crutch” for autonomous vehicle makers.

The Versatility of LIDAR

LIDAR technology can be used in several different applications in all different industries. In industrial settings, LIDAR technology has advanced to a point where manufacturers can use this technology in manner never thought possible. For example, avoiding collision of gantry cranes and autonomous farm tractors. This technology is very versatile.

Challenges Remain

There is an ongoing debate about the shortcomings of LIDAR. These include 1) its excessive cost, 2) inability to measure accurate distance through heavy rain, snow, and fog, and 3) unappealing appearance. Thanks to diligent ingenuity and investment of technical knowhow and capital, considerable progress is being made to overcome these challenges.

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