A rising star in the LiDAR landscape – An interview with Ouster

The LiDAR industry has witnessed important achievements in the past years with the emergence and growth of many companies involved in 3D real-time LiDAR targeting automotive and industrial markets. The market is expected to grow from $1.6B in 2019 to $3.7B in 2025, representing a 19 % annual growth. The highest growth is expected to happen in the automotive market, with an annual growth of 114 %. In the industrial market, many applications are expected to emerge in automation and along all the logistic chain.

With the creation of over one hundred LiDAR companies in the last few years, many new technologies for LiDAR have emerged, from components to software, encompassing imaging and ranging techniques, and with ambitious scientific targets such as optical-phased array (OPA). In this context of LiDAR targeting always higher performance and LiDAR technology being rumored as being very difficult, Ouster has bet on using simple yet efficient components coming from the consumer industry. For light emission, Ouster’s LiDAR relies on vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSEL). For light detection, Ouster’s LiDAR relies on single-photon avalanche diode (SPAD). Achieving some of the best performance figures in the market, Ouster’s LiDAR has been adopted by over 800 customers across many industrial and automotive applications.

Yole Développement LiDAR analysts, Alexis Debray and Pierrick Boulay, talked with Angus Pacala, CEO and co-founder of Ouster, about the positioning of Ouster and the future of the LiDAR industry. Discover the details of the discussion below.

Alexis Debray (AD): Could you please introduce Ouster?

Angus Pacala (AP): Ouster builds high-resolution lidar sensors for the transportation, robotics, industrial automation, and smart infrastructure industries. Using our patented digital lidar architecture, Ouster’s sensors are reliable, compact and affordable, while delivering camera-like image quality. Since our founding in 2015, Ouster has secured over 800 customers and $140 million in funding. Our headquarters is in San Francisco, and we have offices in ​Paris, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, and Suzhou. 

AD: Ouster has developed a unique LiDAR technology based on single-photon avalanche diodes (SPAD) and vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser (VCSEL). The technology is simple and very efficient. Could you tell us more about this technology? Its advantages? Its future?

AP: Ouster’s high-resolution digital lidar technology is unique in the market. From our past experiences, we knew that the only way to make a low-cost, high-performance sensor over the long run was to base the design on digital components. At the time, nobody thought that you could use VCSELs and SPADs to make a high-performance sensor, but we figured out how to do it and patented our approach. The design relies on these two chips with the lasers and detectors, and a lens in front of each chip. In that way, digital lidar really resembles a digital camera. The future of digital lidar has tremendous potential – the core components are improving every year on a Moore’s Law type improvement curve, which will allow us to continue to push higher performance while reducing the cost of the sensors at the same time. 

Ouster’s OS Series spinning sensors cover multiple range and field of view combinations from the long-range OS2 to the ultra-wide view OS0 lidar sensor

AD: Apple has recently used a similar approach (VCSEL + SPAD) in its LiDAR implemented in the last iPad. Do you think that the consumer industry, generating high volumes, can have an impact on the components you are using in term of price and performance?

AP: One of the reasons we chose digital components back in 2015 was because they were starting to be used in consumer electronics. We absolutely get to leverage the economies of scale that consumer electronics can drive in our supply chain, as well as the high levels of investment companies like Apple are pouring into core technology development. Ouster gets to ride those coattails, in a sense. Our core technology improves according to Moore’s Law – no other lidar maker can even come close to saying that. 

AD: Ouster’s LiDAR has been chosen by many companies in industrial applications and robotic vehicle applications. Could you tell us more about the applications of Ouster’s LiDAR and some success stories?

Ouster makes three lidar sensor platforms that share the core digital lidar design. With over 50 combinations of range, field of view, and resolution configurations, Ouster has the most complete lineup of lidar sensors available. That allows us to address nearly every market that consumes high-resolution lidar. One of our favorite examples is Postmates, which makes a food delivery rover powered by Ouster’s lidar sensors. On the complete other end of the spectrum, Ike makes autonomous solutions for the long-haul trucking industry using Ouster’s sensors. The automation revolution is clearly underway, and Ouster’s customers are leading it. 

Ouster customer Ike Robotics builds solutions for automated trucking.

Pierrick Boulay (PB): Some LiDAR companies have started to reduce the price of their LiDAR. Moreover, more and more Chinese companies are offering LiDAR with reduced prices. Do you see the LiDAR unit prices greatly decrease in the coming years? Will it ease LiDAR adoption in more applications?

AP: It’s a truism in the lidar industry that costs need to come down, and nobody has put more downward pressure on prices than Ouster. We have an unfair advantage – our sensors cost significantly less to design and manufacture, and we get higher yields out of our production process because of our simpler design. We pass those savings on to our customers, and we plan to keep driving down costs in the future. In the near future, we see 3D lidar sensors starting to replace 2D lidar sensors and enabling a new wave of industrial automation that previously was too expensive to consider. 

PB: What is your position about LiDAR software and services? How do you see the LiDAR business evolve beyond hardware into software and services?

AP: Historically, lidar data has been cumbersome to use for object classification and other perception-driven tasks. We’re starting to see sophisticated customers leveraging Ouster’s higher resolution and higher quality signal and ambient images as part of their perception stack. This is incredibly exciting and points to the necessity of making that type of sophistication available to every one of our customers. We see a number of opportunities for software driven solutions for industries that aren’t as used to working with high-resolution lidar. 

Ouster customer Postmates builds an autonomous delivery rover to deliver food in urban cities

PB: Velodyne and Luminar have recently announced they will become public this year. Are we going to see dramatic changes in the LiDAR industrial landscape in the coming years?

AP: Ouster recently announced that we raised $42 million in a Series B funding, and that our revenue has grown 62% in the past 12 months. We’ve also seen our bookings grow by 209% in Q3 2020 versus the same period a year ago. The leaders in lidar are clearly pulling away from the pack, and Ouster stands to be at the forefront of the lidar industry more and more as our core technology advantages play out in the market. 

PB: The COVID-19 crisis is having a high impact on the economy and business worldwide. How do you see the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the development of the LiDAR industry?

For us, it’s been a mix. Some customer programs have accelerated, while others have experienced delays. In the very beginning, we had to work through some supply chain and manufacturing delays ourselves. We’re fully up and running now, and Q3 is our strongest bookings quarter to date. 

Interviewee

Angus Pacala is the CEO and co-founder of Ouster, Inc., a technology company located in San Francisco, CA building high-resolution lidar sensors for autonomous vehicles, robotics, mapping, security, and more. Previously, he was the Director of Engineering and co-founder at Quanergy Systems, Inc. and a battery engineer at Amprius, Inc. Angus received his B.S. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University.

Interviewers

Pierrick Boulay - Yole Développement

As part of the Photonics, Sensing & Display division at Yole Développement (Yole), Pierrick Boulay works as Market and Technology Analyst in the fields of LED, OLED and Lighting Systems to carry out technical, economic and marketing analysis. He has experience in both LED lighting (general lighting, automotive lighting…) and OLED lighting. In the past, he has mostly worked in R&D department for LED lighting applications. Pierrick holds a master degree in Electronics (ESEO – France).

Alexis Debray - Yole Développement

Alexis Debray, PhD is a Technology & Market Analyst, Optoelectronics at Yole Développement (Yole). As a member of the Photonics, Sensing & Display division, Alexis is today engaged in the development of technology & market reports as well as the production of custom consulting projects dedicated to the imaging industry.

After spending 2 years at the University of Tokyo to develop expertise focused on MEMS technologies, Alexis served as a research engineer at Canon Inc. Over 15 years he contributed to numerous projects of development, focused on MEMS devices, lingual prehension, and terahertz imaging devices.

Alexis is the author of various scientific publications and patents. He graduated from ENSICAEN and holds a PhD in applied acoustics.

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