The Future of Transportation is Built with Optics Inside

By Rebecca Andersen

The race to develop and deploy an autonomous vehicle is fast and furious. Enabling and empowering the next-generation of transportation is optics and photonics. Optical technologies have become essential in automotive applications such as head-up and inside vehicle displays. Luminar Technologies, Inc., a new company headed by CEO Austin Russell and OSA Fellow and CTO Jason Eichenholz, have developed sensors that could make self-driving cars safer than human drivers.

A single image frame captured with a Luminar LiDAR system
LiDAR technology is at the center of the self-driving car world because it helps cars navigate by detecting objects around them without human help. The technology emits laser beams to create a highly accurate 3D map of the surrounding area around the car. LiDAR data can sense a cyclist crossing in front of it at a stop sign or a pedestrian walking up to 200 meters away. This laser map, plus cameras and software, provides the information that helps a car operate without a driver.

“LiDAR is the key to making self-driving cars safe and ubiquitous, and optics is at the core of what Luminar is building,” stated CTO and OSA Fellow Jason Eichenholz. “I’ve been working in the photonics industry for more than 25 years, and I’ve never been more excited about how optics and photonics are shaping the future. I know Luminar’s LiDAR system will put safe, autonomous vehicles on the road at massive scale.” 
Pictured: Austin Russell, CEO & Jason Eichenholz, CTO. Image Credit: Luminar
The automotive segment of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) is increasing in popularity and its associated use of lasers, light sources like light-emitting diodes, cameras and heads-up displays. The demand for automated driver tasks is driving the growth of ADAS, such as cameras for parking assistance, laser systems for mapping of the environment around the car, cameras and sensors for active lane-maintaining systems, and night vision systems, among others. While the technology is installed initially in high-end luxury vehicles, ADAS systems are expected to reach many more vehicles in years to come.

The Luminar LiDAR system views objects up to 200 meters, at 10 percent reflectivity, and greater than one million points-per-second depth mapping and while remaining above current eye-safe levels. Typical systems see about 30 meters away and when a car is barreling down the highway at 70 miles per hour, the further a sensor can see, the better. Put it all together and it is a challenging physics problem -- one that the Luminar team has overcome by designing from the chip level up.

Located in both Portola Valley, California and Orlando, Florida, the Luminar team has drawn from the proximity to the University of Central Florida’s CREOL for its optics expertise. Matt Weed, Director of R&D explains, “We engineer our own custom optical components for our LiDAR system -- lasers, receivers, chips, packaging and more -- rather than incorporating off-the-shelf components. To do this, we draw upon our vast network within the optics industry for the best materials possible.”
A Luminar LiDAR system
Luminar says it's been working with four partners in the autonomous driving space and those partners will beta test the system. The company says it will then begin to build and ship a 10,000 unit run from its Orlando facility by the end of the year. Just in time to meet the expected demand due to rising adoption of safety systems in autonomous and semi-autonomous cars at various levels of automation. Luminar Technologies is well on its way towards making LiDAR systems with the sensitivity to change the way we drive for the better. 


Posted: 4 May 2017 by Rebecca Andersen | with 0 comments

The views expressed by guest contributors to the Discover OSA Blog are not those endorsed by The Optical Society.


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