LIDAR, a method of detecting and mapping environments using light, is a lot like radar on steroids. LIDAR sensors bounce laser beams off the world around them. The wavelengths of light are about100,000 times smaller than radio waves, so the competition in detail isn’t even close. LIDAR is currently used in robots, which need to be able to assess an environment in detail to make choices about movements. Autonomous vehicles like self driving cars and drones also use the technology. Right now, LIDAR systems can cost between $1,000 and $70,000 each and are rather bulky, mechanically swiveling the laser to scan the environment. But a new invention from engineers at MIT Photonic Microsystems Group and DARPA may dramatically alter the cost and size of these systems.
The engineers have created what they call a “LIDAR chip,” a LIDAR sensor that fits onto one 300 millimeter microchip. These chips could be made using the same process currently used for microprocessors, significantly bringing down the cost of production. Not only does this new approach mean that the sensors will be much cheaper —they’ll cost about $10 each to produce—but the technology is also vastly improved. The sensors will be able to scan their environments 1,000 times faster than currently used mechanical LIDAR systems. That makes the chips great for unmanned arial vehicles, which need to scan their environment for small, quickly moving objects, like, say, birds. Using silicon photonics (a way of building light-based circuits) on a micro scale, this invention could do for 3D mapping what the microchip did for computing.
Read more about the future of LIDAR chips on IEEE Spectrum