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Essential Science: The man who helps cars to see

By Tim Sandle     Sep 11, 2017 in Science
LiDAR technology can serve a critical role in terms of obstacle detection and avoidance, allowing vehicles to navigate safely through environments. As autonomous cars become a pressing reality, this technology is leading the way forward.
Austin Russell is the pioneer behind the LiDAR technology that is helping to power the driverless car revolution. His company, Luminar Technologies, is developing a Light Detecting and Ranging (LiDAR) system for self-driving cars. The success of the project to date, as Wired outline in a special profile, has allowed Russell to employ over 200 people.
Toyota Prius  an autonomous vehicle.
Toyota Prius, an autonomous vehicle.
LiDAR is a type of surveying method based on the measurement of distance to a target by illuminating that target with a pulsed laser light and measuring the reflected pulses back via a sensor. The differences with laser return times and wavelengths are used to construct digital 3D-representations of the target. The term LiDAR is a compression of the word light and the acronym RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging). The technology is being used for control and navigation for some types of autonomous cars.
Mitsubishi Electric s floating LIDAR applications Measures and visualizes the wind condition of the ...
Mitsubishi Electric's floating LIDAR applications Measures and visualizes the wind condition of the wind farm to: - adjust the yaw angle of the wind turbines - patrol the wind conditions.
Mitsubishi Electric
The common approach is for the system to deploy rotating laser beams. The sensor readings provide sufficient data for robot software to determine where potential obstacles exist in the environment. Such data also allows the machine to assess where it is in relation to potential obstacles.
Austin Russell has taken a different approach to building LiDAR, with his collaborator Jason Eichenholz. Looking at the shaky development with some systems, he realized that developers have been "throwing software engineers at a hardware problem.” Russell’s system operates at a new wavelength of light (1,150 rather than 905 nanometres). This means Russell’s system can emit 68 photons for every single one put out on the traditional wavelength.
This technology provides a range that is ten times farther and a resolution 50 times higher than comparable systems. In real terms, when a car sees something 200 meters ahead it has seven seconds to react to an obstacle (at a typical cruising speed). Again, this is superior to other systems in terms of response time. Russell’s system came from a review of 2,000 different ways to develop a LiDAR system.
Peter Theil at the Hy! Summit - March 19  2014
Peter Theil at the Hy! Summit - March 19, 2014
Heisenberg Media//Dan Taylor
The genesis of the technology began when Peter Thiel (the PayPal guru) awarded Russell a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship when he was 17, letting him quit Stanford University. This investment looks to pay high dividends.
Russell has demonstrated the technology in his own car, which features two screens. The first display shows what the current autonomous car ‘sees’; the second screen shows what his pioneering technology allows the car to ‘see’. His technology provides a detailed, high resolution series of images of the landscape.
Russell’s technology aims to improve the safety of autonomous cars with a single laser. The way this will work is outlined in the following video:
To test out the LiDAR, Luminar purchased a small fleet of Tesla Model S electric cars. In a test described by Business Insider, Luminar installed a LiDAR device into a car. The car was directed at a target: a blackboard sitting next to a "200 meter" sign. The distance was important since Luminar is 200 meters is longer than other LiDAR systems. Moreover, the ability of some LiDAR systems to detect dark black objects is weak. During the trial the system zoomed in on the black billboard in the distance. The Luminar LiDAR was able to pick up the pigeon walking in the middle of the floor, some 100 meters away from the car. With this, Luminar’s LiDAR data will tell a car that a cyclist is crossing in front of it at a stop sign or that a pedestrian is walking nearby on a sidewalk.
Tesla Model 3 achieves 345 km of range per charge while starting at only 35 000 USD before incentive...
Tesla Model 3 achieves 345 km of range per charge while starting at only 35,000 USD before incentives.
© Tesla Motors
Launched in April 2017, the Luminar company is embarking on its first major commercial run of 10,000 units produced from the company’s Orlando factory. The Luminar approach shows how a plucky start-up can come up with an innovative solution to challenge major players like Velodne, Ibeo, Google and Waymo.
Essential Science
Doctor Examines Patient
Doctor Examines Patient
National Cancer Institute
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we investigated the world of telemedicine, weighing up whether it can match face-to-face meetings with medics. The previous week we looked at developments with biofuel production and the use of a special group of microbes called cyanobacteria.
More about autonomous cars, selfdriving, Cars, lidar, Radar