This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.
Light detection and ranging, or lidar, is a sensing technology based on laser light. It’s similar to radar, but can have a higher resolution, since the wavelength of light is about 100,000 times smaller than radio wavelengths. For robots, this is very important: Since radar cannot accurately image small features, a robot equipped with only a radar module would have a hard time grasping a complex object. At the moment, primary applications of lidar are autonomous vehicles and robotics, but also include terrain and ocean mapping and UAVs. Lidar systems are integral to almost all autonomous vehicles and many other robots that operate autonomously in commercial or industrial environments.
Lidar systems measure how far away each pixel in a 3D space is from the emitting device, as well as the direction to that pixel, which allows for the creation of a full 3D model of the world around the sensor. The basic method of operation of a lidar system is to transmit a beam of light, and then measure the returning signal when the light reflects off of an object. The time that the reflected signal takes to come back to the lidar module provides a direct measurement of the distance to the object. Additional information about the object, like its velocity or material composition, can also be determined by measuring certain properties of the reflected signal, such as the induced Doppler shift. Finally, by steering this transmitted light, many different points of an environment can be measured to create a full 3D model.
Most lidar systems—like the ones commonly seen on autonomous vehicles—use discrete free-space optical components like lasers, lenses, and external receivers. In order to have a useful field of view, this laser/receiver module is mechanically spun around, often while being oscillated up and down. This mechanical apparatus limits the scan rate of the lidar system while increasing both size and complexity, leading to concerns about long-term reliability, especially in harsh environments. Today, commercially available high-end lidar systems can range from $1,000 to upwards of $70,000, which can limit their applications where cost must be minimized.
Applications such as autonomous vehicles and robotics heavily depend on lidar, and an expensive lidar module is a major obstacle to their use in commercial products. Our work at MIT’s Photonic Microsystems Group is trying to take these large, expensive, mechanical lidar systems and integrate them on a microchip that can be mass produced in commercial CMOS foundries.