LiDAR systems are technically ideal for environment detection – especially for autonomous cars. The problem is that laser-based sensor technology is not yet robust enough and, above all, too expensive for use in millions of vehicles. Munich-based LiDAR startup Blickfeld is working on the next generation of LiDAR.
It is still unclear exactly when autonomous cars will bring us comfortably to our destinations. While manufacturers such as Tesla and Volvo predicted such vehicles for 2017 in the past, the consulting firm PwC assumes that Level 5 driving will not be part of everyday life until 2030. What is clear, however, is which sensor technology will be needed for the further automation of traffic in the coming decade: “LiDAR is the sweet spot for sensors,” writes the Swiss banking group UBS in its recent report on autonomous driving. The reason: only LiDAR technology will ensure reliable safety for autonomous cars – and thus pave the way for their breakthrough for the mass market.
Key technology for the autonomous car
Laser-based sensor technology functions similarly to a radar: Instead of radio waves, however, a LiDAR emits laser pulses. If these pulses hit objects, they are reflected. A sensor in the LiDAR measures the amount of time it takes for each pulse to bounce back. The distance between the objects can then be calculated from the pulse propagation time. Thanks to their good spatial resolution, LiDAR sensors can detect cars, cyclists and pedestrians as well as traffic lights, fences and buildings precisely and reliably – better and easier than other sensors: stereo cameras can also be used to obtain 3D information. However, distance measurement with this method is strongly dependent on ambient light. A radar, on the other hand, is not high-resolution enough: it detects objects, but cannot say exactly what they are. However, LiDAR systems still have their drawbacks: Currently, the key technology for autonomous cars is still too large, prone to failure, too expensive, and not production scalable. German LiDAR start-up Blickfeld says the problem that the automotive industry faces today is not buying a handful of high-performance LiDAR. The problem is getting hundred thousand or millions of them at a cost where they can be built into every consumer grade car which can eventually provide the highest performance and safety. As of now, there is no LiDAR available for this mass-market need.
The currently most powerful LiDAR costs tens of thousands of euros, is so large that it can only fit on the roof of the car and is still not automotive-grade. Prices like that are out of the question for series applications. In addition, the current LiDAR generation has a further disadvantage: it works with complicated rotating mechanics to direct the beams from several lasers over the scenery. These components are sensitive and not ideally suited for the typical stresses in a car. Blickfeld takes a different approach. They believe solid-state-LiDAR sensors are the solution. They do not require mechanically sensitive components like bearings and are therefore much more robust and therefore more durable. A key component are so-called MEMS mirrors. These silicon parts are responsible for laser beam deflection, replacing all rotating parts. They can be manufactured as precisely and as highly scalable as computer chips. In combination with low-cost standard components, powerful LiDAR sensors will thus become affordable for the mass market for the first time.
Highly scalable, ultra-compact and flexible in application
Blickfeld’s silicon technology is also ultra-compact and can be configured flexibly, for example as a front-facing system with a narrow opening angle and a long range of up to 200 meters for motorway driving – or as a midrange sensor with a 120-degree scanning angle. In addition, the new generation of LiDAR sensors can also improve driver assistance systems such as blind spot detection. Distributed over the corners of a vehicle, they can completely monitor the are around the car. Previously, only extremely expensive and bulky LiDAR sensors on car roofs offered such a 360-degree all-round view.
Soon such LiDAR sensors could roll off the assembly line in their hundreds of thousands and more. Until now, one could only dream of these quantities. For this new LiDAR technology, there are also many applications outside vehicles. For example, intelligent traffic lights that warn pedestrians, cyclists and cars of each other at dangerous junctions. Or mobile robots and autonomous drones that can find their way safely. Even LiDAR monitoring and measurement technology is possible.
The 3D point clouds, that the LiDAR produces are rich in information, but to use it in such a turnkey solution requires an intermediate step which condenses information. Blickfeld is therefore also developing a software stack that provides abstracted information and enables high-level environment perception based on data collected by one or more LiDAR sensors. It is designed for application in a variety of scenarios, such as object tracking and recognition, or real time localization and mapping.
For Blickfeld, the key for success is technical expertise, experience and variety in a team. Each LiDAR is a complex system and requires deep knowledge of a multitude of technical disciplines. The founding team of Blickfeld consists of an opto-electrical engineer, a computer scientist, a roboticist, and a patent attorney – two of which had already founded a successful start-up together. They therefore know how to build a company, valuable knowledge which they are applying to Blickfeld now. That alone brings very different skills to the table. They are joined by a management team of experienced professionals with renowned expertise in the fields of electronics, optics, MEMS, software, and business.
Blickfeld is a provider of cutting-edge LiDAR technology for autonomous mobility and IoT applications. The company has developed proprietary LiDAR technology based on patented silicon MEMS mirrors and commercial off-the-shelf components. Blickfeld aims to bring high-performance LiDARs to the mass market. Founded in 2017 and based in Munich, Germany, the fast-growing company has 50 employees today.