LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) is what will give the vehicles of the future their eyes— eyes capable of identifying routes, obstacles, hazards, and conditions. Similar to its close relative, radar, LIDAR grants depth perception, vital to safely navigate fast-changing dynamic environments.
It is the crucial technology lying underneath hitherto fantastical ideas as autonomous vehicles, driver-assisted smart-cars, and smart roadways. By granting tomorrow’s wheeled computers a 3D vision of the world, objects can be more precisely categorized and evaluated in real-time. In this process, LIDAR is the e technology for the forthcoming paradigm shift in transport.
The technology is not new. LIDAR was previously used in geomapping applications, where its capability of seeing through jungle canopies has enabled it to find lost cities and identify massive geological formations. It has been of use in surveying for roads and development, and for metrology of buildings, and even the moon. Its base operating principle is much like radar: a bolus of photons is directed in a sweeping pattern and the returning signal is caught and studied in the time domain to find the presence, shape, and distance of objects and features.
Presently, intriguing futuristic transportation applications have provided motivation for this rapidly growing industry to develop an impressive range of innovative new implementations, marching beside a tide of investment from venture capitalists, software giants, and well-known players in the field of transportation.
At the moment, these new implementations seem to split into two fundamental classes: the first is solid-state and makes use of photonic mechanisms surprisingly alike to some of what we see in MEMS and silicon photonics, while the second more cannily resembles smartphone cameras, supermarket scanners, and other applications of bulk optics.
Every avenue has its adherents and partisans. And all share a crisis looming ahead: the necessity of lower cost and higher amounts of manufacturing to meet. Only then will transportation’s smart future to be able to unroll.
Previously, LIDAR applications have been small in volume, with cost structures usually seen in aerospace sensors. That must change if fleets of smart cars are to rescue urban areas from exponentiating gridlock.
Again, the twin analogy to Silicon Photonics and smartphone cameras becomes clear. In both cases, innovation allows great jumps forward in adoption of formerly exotic technologies, to the extent that (as an example) the majority of people wander around with location-aware, multi-networked, cloud-serviced supercomputers with cameras of supreme quality in our pockets today. Additionally, in both instances, the technologies running underneath require enabling automated assembly technologies capable of successfully attaining otherwise impractical combinations of throughput and accuracy across many degrees of freedom.
Breakthroughs in LIDAR Manufacturing Strategies
So a familiar unfolding is happening in LIDAR manufacturing strategies as the field starts to enter mainstream transportation-consumer adoption. The fantastically innovative sensors of both the solid-state and bulk-optic families all need micron- or submicron-precision integration of multiple electro-optic elements and components.
Luckily for this burgeoning field, the proven micro-robotic and alignment-automation manufacturing technologies that have facilitated Silicon Photonics supply solutions ready to be applied.
Foremost among these manufacturing-ready solutions is the hexapod, a six-degree-of-freedom micro-robot. The most developed of these involve sophisticated scanning optimization algorithms in their firmware that enable optimization of multiple elements and multiple degrees of freedom simultaneously. In Silicon Photonics, this combination of parallel functionalities was proven to lower alignment times, usually by a minimum of 99%. As alignment steps are recurring throughout the manufacturing cycle, from wafer-scale testing through chip test to final packaging, this striking reduction is greatly leveraged. Enlightened LIDAR manufacturers have taken note.
Hexapod 6DoF active alignment platform with high-speed piezo XYZ scanner
Similarly, these industrial micro-robots have been widely introduced for assembly of smartphone cameras and mechanisms. In these applications, they allow six degrees of freedom of motion along with a freely settable rotational centerpoint that enables millidegree-scale rotation accuracies about optically desirable points, including beam waists, focal points, and waveguide end-faces. Again similarly, the coordinate system is not fixed in space as it is with typically stacked assemblies, and it can be cast and rotated to ease the application by using straightforward software commands.
Many mechanisms of this class, along with other motorized and piezoelectric motion elements, can be arrayed to perform optimizations in multiple-element devices at the same time. This enables quick alignment of multiple refractive, diffractive, and reflective elements for assembly and test.
These features are now being leveraged by pioneering LIDAR manufacturers to push expenses down, propel volumes up, and stay ahead of the abundant competition.
Combining the hexapod micro-robots into large-scale industrial automation assemblies, including gantries and air-bearing stages, is eased by high-velocity industrial interfaces, such as Ethernet and the EtherCAT real-time open networking standard.
In this way, the budding field of LIDAR is building on a foundation laid by Silicon Photonics and smartphones— a positive outcome and one that caught off guard all but the most prescient thinkers in ultraprecision manufacturing, engineering, and innovation theory. For a brand new sphere to push forward and leverage current technologies from disparate fields is exactly the sort of recombinant innovation that academic students of meaningful innovation have recorded throughout recent history. Shrewd entrepreneurs will take notice.
References and Further Reading
This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by PI (Physik Instrumente) LP.
For more information on this source, please visit PI (Physik Instrumente) LP.