“LiDAR-On-A-Chip” — Fun & Potentially Powerful Project Of MIT Researchers

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A potentially far cheaper form of LIDAR — dubbed “LiDAR-on-a-chip” — is being developed by researchers at MIT’s Photonic Microsystems Group, according to recent reports.

Either a giant dime or a tiny LiDAR. Photo: Christopher V. Poulton

The system under development possesses no moving parts, is quite small (smaller than a dime), and can reportedly be mass produced relatively cheaply, according to those involved. Such a technology (if it pans out) could potentially allow for notably reduced autonomous driving hardware costs. Applications in compact robotics are also an interesting possibility.

The device being developed by the researchers measures 0.5 mm x 6 mm, and is a silicon photonic chip featuring steerable transmitting and receiving phased arrays, as well as on-chip germanium photodetectors. The laser is as of yet not integrated into the chips, though on-chip lasers may be integrated in the future.

The current devices can detect objects at ranges of up to 2 meters — the aim being to increase this to up to 10 meters within a year or so. The researchers claim that there is a clear development path towards a device that would detect at ranges of up to 100 meters.

Researchers Christopher V. Poulton and Michael R. Watts provide some comments: “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.”

Continuing: “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. Our LiDAR chips promise to be orders of magnitude smaller, lighter, and cheaper than LiDAR systems available on the market today. They also have the potential to be much more robust because of the lack of moving parts, with a non-mechanical beam steering 1,000 times faster than what is currently achieved in mechanical LiDAR systems.”

As of now, the research team is producing the LiDAR chips on 300-millimeter wafers — meaning there’s the potential for production costs (when producing volumes of many millions a year) of as low as ~$10.

The research is detailed in a paper published in the journal IEEE Spectrum.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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