The future of mobility and of autonomous vehicle technology is closer to reality than ever. But technologists still have a few challenges to work out before full autonomous adoption, which McKinsey currently predicts to take place around 2030.
One such challenge is the implementation of LiDAR technology, which autonomous vehicles and robotic systems use to navigate their environment. LiDAR sends out millions of laser pulses per second to survey the surroundings, essentially bouncing light off of objects in order to build a visual environment, similarly to how a bat’s sonar employs sound waves.
Some researchers prefer an autonomous approach without LiDAR due to cost and accuracy issues that come from the current technology. Alternative solutions include scanning tools that use mirrors or spinning units that are difficult and costly to integrate into a car.
Founded in 2016, Durham-based startup Sense Photonics is approaching 3D sensing in a different way.
CEO and co-founder Scott Burroughs worked with laser-related technologies within solar panels at a previous company. He saw the potential for that core technology to be used in other implementations.
“I realized that this could solve one of the problems with LiDAR, which is getting enough power out of the laser emitter to be able to get long range and a wide field of view in a cost-effective and eye-safe way,” Burroughs tells Hypepotamus.
In 2017, Burroughs and co-founder Russell Kanjorski raised $5 million led by Congruent Ventures to build out an engineering team and working LiDAR demonstration system to commercialize their idea.
Sense Photonics uses a flash LiDAR that illuminates the whole field of view in one flash, versus multiple over time that are then pieced together. The result is a picture that is almost camera-like.
“There’s a need for a long-range LiDAR that’s in the 150 to 250 meter range, for highway driving primarily. This allows the vehicle to see a tire on the road, something with low reflectivity, and give the autonomous vehicle plenty of notice to avoid it,” says Burroughs.
Flash LiDAR eliminates the blind spots or blacked-out areas that now often appear close to the vehicle. Sense’s LiDAR has a wide-field view both horizontally and vertically, and when four sensors are installed around the vehicle, provides a 360-degree view of the environment.
The system is easy to install on any autonomous vehicle, unlike other products that require complete car redesigns. It looks just like a big camera, something manufacturers are already familiar with.
Burroughs says that while they wait for the autonomous vehicle market to mature, they will target robots systems, mobility applications, and automation applications within warehouses.
Through partnerships with suppliers and manufacturers, Sense Photonics will get into the market quickly in safe, profitable ways, he tells Hypepotamus.
The startup exited stealth mode just last month with a $26 million Series A announcement that included strategic investors like Shell Ventures and Samsung Ventures.
The company already has customers in place, with more pilots coming up. They will ramp up production in 2020 as they grow beyond over 30 employees.
“It’s pretty clear in our mind that the leaders in the LiDAR space are going to be the ones that bring unique differentiation to the party. In our case, it’s the laser emitter right now. Soon that will also include the detector portion that will extend to 200 meters (650 feet) and beyond,” says Burroughs.
Sense Photonics is headquartered in North Carolina, with offices in San Francisco and Scotland.