CU: Leap in LIDAR could improve safety, security of new technologies

Tuesday July 7, 2020 0 comments Tags: Boulder, CU-Boulder, LiDAR, Nathan Dostart, Kelvin Wagner

BOULDER -- Whether it’s on top of a self-driving car or embedded inside the latest gadget, Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) systems will likely play an important role in our technological future, enabling vehicles to ‘see’ in real-time, phones to map three-dimensional images and enhancing augmented reality in video games.CU_logoUSE_1 

The challenge: These 3-D imaging systems can be bulky, expensive and hard to shrink down to the size needed for these up-and-coming applications.

But University of Colorado Boulder researchers say they are one big step closer to a solution.

In a new paper, published in Optica, they describe a new silicon chip -- with no moving parts or electronics -- that improves the resolution and scanning speed needed for a lidar system. 

“We're looking to ideally replace big, bulky, heavy lidar systems with just this flat, little chip,” said Nathan Dostart, lead author on the study, who recently completed his doctorate in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Current commercial LIDAR systems use large, rotating mirrors to steer the laser beam and thereby create a 3-D image.

For the past three years, Dostart and his colleagues have been working on a new way of steering laser beams called wavelength steering -- where each wavelength, or “color,” of the laser is pointed to a unique angle. 

They’ve not only developed a way to do a version of this along two dimensions simultaneously, instead of only one, they’ve done it with color, using a “rainbow” pattern to take 3-D images.

Since the beams are easily controlled by simply changing colors, multiple phased arrays can be controlled simultaneously to create a bigger aperture and a higher resolution image. 

“We've figured out how to put this two-dimensional rainbow into a little teeny chip,” said Kelvin Wagner, co-author of the new study and professor of electrical and computer engineering. 

Autonomous vehicles are currently a $50 billion dollar industry, projected to be worth more than $500 billion by 2026. While many cars on the road today already have some elements of autonomous assistance, such as enhanced cruise control and automatic lane-centering, the real race is to create a car that drives itself with no input or responsibility from a human driver.

In the past 15 years or so, innovators have realized that in order to do this cars will need more than just cameras and radar -- they will need LIDAR.

While great strides have been made in the size of LIDAR systems, they remain the most expensive part of self-driving cars by far -- as much as $70,000 each. 

In order to work broadly in the consumer market one day, lidar must become even cheaper, smaller and less complex. Some companies are trying to accomplish this feat using silicon photonics: An emerging area in electrical engineering that uses silicon chips, which can process light. 

CU said the research team’s new finding is an important advancement in silicon chip technology for use in LIDAR systems.