Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR, is not only seen as a key enabler for autonomous driving, it is triggering a lot of excitement from scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs. The technology combines many disciplines, including lasers, photodetectors, mechanical engineering, and artificial intelligence (AI). The automotive LiDAR market is expected to be worth $4.2B in 2024 according to Yole Développement’s LiDAR for Automotive and Industrial Applications report. Furthermore, LiDAR development and manufacturing have to enter the complex automotive supply chain through various collaborations.
In order to gain insights into these complex markets and technologies, Pierrick Boulay and Alexis Debray, market and technology analysts at Yole Développement, sat down with Dr. Florian Petit, founder of Blickfeld GmbH.
Pierrick Boulay (PB): Can you please introduce yourself and your company?
Florian Petit (FP): My name is Florian Petit, I am one of the founders of Blickfeld. I am a roboticist and three years ago I founded Blickfeld with Mathias Müller and Rolf Wojtech, who had already built a successful start-up in the sensor industry.
I had been in contact with autonomous cars in 2008 during my stay at Stanford University. When I looked at the progress that was made in the sensor technology surrounding autonomous vehicles, I was surprised to see that nine years later, there was barely any development in LiDAR technology for mass production. The sensors were still as bulky, complex and expensive as they had been in 2008 during the first DARPA challenge. This is the reason why we started to develop a LiDAR sensor that solves the problems of the industry: A sensor that is small, high-performance and production scalable. We are going to need millions of LiDAR sensors in the future and Blickfeld was founded to make that possible.
Alexis Debray (AD): Can you present Blickfeld’s LiDAR technology?
FP: Blickfeld builds solid-state MEMS-based LiDAR sensors. The sensors consist of three main components: The laser source, the beam deflection unit and the detector. What makes the Blickfeld LiDARs special is the beam deflection unit, where we developed a proprietary MEMS mirror unit to deflect the laser pulse onto the surrounding scenery. Specifically developed for LiDAR, it allows us to build mass-producible high-performance lidars.
PB: In 2019, Blickfeld announced that the company is working together with Koito and Webasto. What will these projects provide in the future?
FP: Cars are design objects, which is why seamless integration that does not disrupt the vehicle design is important. We are working with both companies on integrating our sensors into the vehicle. With Koito we are working on integration into a headlamp. With Webasto we are looking at possible ways to integrate the Blickfeld sensor into its Roof Sensor Module.
AD: It seems that Blickfeld is focusing on the automotive market at the moment. What kind of other applications are you also targeting?
FP: The automotive market is a very important market for us, because we see great disruption in recent years. More than 80 million cars are built each year and soon every single one of these will need one or multiple LiDARs. We developed our LiDAR with automotive requirements in mind, especially regarding performance, size, robustness and cost.
But we also see many other application areas. LiDAR is a very versatile sensor for environmental perception. It can be beneficial, for example in industry for autonomous robots, empty lane detection and volume measurement, in security for perimeter security and crowd management at large events like soccer games, and in smart cities for parking spot detection and traffic management.
PB: The integration of LiDAR in Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) vehicles will be very challenging, and will need compact LiDARs. How can you further reduce the volume of your LiDAR?
FP: Up to this point our focus was to build a compact unit that is manufacturable in a highly automated fashion. However, we did not yet integrate our functional parts on a component level. By building integrated subcomponents, a further miniaturization is achievable.
AD: You have put in a lot of effort to develop a dedicated MEMS mirror. What is the added value of your MEMS mirror compared to others for LiDAR application?
FP: For use in autonomous vehicles, LiDAR sensors have to meet three basic requirements: they have to deliver high performance, including long range and a wide field of view, they must be robust enough for tough environmental conditions, and they must be scalable so that millions can be produced and installed in vehicles.
MEMS-based LiDARs fulfil all these requirements. As mentioned earlier, in order to reach the required performance levels Blickfeld has therefore developed our own MEMS mirrors specifically designed for the LiDAR application. They offer an exceptionally large aperture resulting in a long range of up to 250 meters, which is combined with a wide field of view. Additionally, the MEMS mirrors are built for rough environmental conditions. They outperform conventional MEMS especially through their design for shock and vibration. Because they are produced in silicon, MEMS mirrors are highly precise even if manufactured in large volumes.
PB: You have chosen to use silicon photomultipliers (SiPMs) as sensors instead of using avalanche photodiodes (APDs) or single photon avalanche diodes (SPADs). What were the reasons to choose this sensor?
FP: SiPMs are very sensitive detectors, which can even resolve single photons. Thereby we can build very sensitive LiDARs with great performance parameters. Interestingly, there is very fast advancement of SiPM technology, providing even more development potential for the years to come.
AD: LiDARs generate a lot of data and much computing power is needed to process it. Do you think that LiDARs will integrate a pre-processing step to reduce the amount of data sent to the electronic control unit (ECU)? Or do you think that powerful domain controllers will be developed to gather and process data generated by several sensors, such as radar, LiDAR and cameras?
FP: That is definitely an interesting development. Directly obtaining high level environment information, such as the drivable area and traffic participants, that may be as abstract as in an object list is an ultimate development.
PB: How do you see the LiDAR industry changing in the next 10 years?
FP: LiDAR will conquer many industries. The high data reliability and the resulting safety will prove valuable for applications from many different areas. In the LiDAR industry itself we are going to see further specialization in different technologies and, connected to that, different application industries and areas.
Dr. Florian Petit, Co-Founder of Blickfeld Before founding Blickfeld, Dr sc Florian Petit worked on the control of robots as part of scientific work at the Technical University of Munich, Stanford University, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and ETH Zurich. The roboticist obtained his Ph.D. in the field of human-machine collaboration. At Blickfeld, he is responsible for marketing, sales and business development.
As part of the Photonics, Sensing & Display division at Yole Développement (Yole), Pierrick Boulay works as Market and Technology Analyst in the fields of Solid State Lighting and Lighting Systems to carry out technical, economic and marketing analysis. Pierrick has authored several reports and custom analysis dedicated to topics such as general lighting, automotive lighting, LiDAR, IR LEDs, UV LEDs and VCSELs.
Prior to Yole, Pierrick has worked in several companies where he developed his knowledge on general lighting and on automotive lighting. In the past, he has mostly worked in R&D department for LED lighting applications. Pierrick holds a master degree in Electronics from ESEO in Angers, France.
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 and market reports as well as the production of custom consulting projects dedicated to the imaging industry.
After spending two 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 development projects, 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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