09 Jan 2017
Thermal imaging for drones, augmented reality headsets and smart sunglasses vied for attention with autonomous vehicle technology at the Las Vegas jamboree.
For the second year running, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas appears to have been dominated by cars – and by photonics-enabled autonomous driving technology in particular.
With all the major auto makers in attendance, it was perhaps BMW that made the most significant announcement, its development chief Klaus Frölich sharing a stage with Intel CEO Bryan Krzanich and Mobileye CTO Amnon Shashua to announce that a fleet of around 40 autonomous test vehicles will be on US and European roads later this year.
The cars will be guided by a fusion of camera, radar and lidar sensors, combined with learning algorithms and artificial intelligence, with Frölich saying: “This partnership has all of the skills and talent necessary to overcome the enormous technological challenges ahead and commercialize self-driving vehicles.”
The three companies announced their “open-source” collaboration in July 2016, and since then their engineering teams have identified 19 different technology development streams – one of which is the lidar sensor element.
“Mobileye will further collaborate with the BMW Group to develop the sensor fusion solution, creating a full model of the environment surrounding the vehicle, using input from vision, radar, and lidar sensors,” the German auto giant added.
Lidar for autonomous vehicles was once again a key theme in Las Vegas, and while last year’s event saw the emergence of the Californian pair Velodyne Lidar and Quanergy Systems with their compact, solid-state modules, this time they were joined by several new protagonists.
Among them was Canada’s LeddarTech, a spin-out from the country’s national optics institute (INO). And while Quanergy said it would soon ramp its sensor production to a level that will enable a price point below $250, LeddarTech reckons it can trump that with a unit that could sell for just $100.
Presenting its 2D and 3D sensor designs publicly for the first time in Vegas, LeddarTech also had its lidar units featured in the exhibition booths of some of the auto industry's biggest hitters, including Fiat Chrysler, Valeo, and Magneti Marelli.
The lidar systems are said to offer the high levels of performance, resolution, and cost-effectiveness required by top-tier customers for mass-market autonomous driving applications. “Production versions will offer resolutions of up to 512x64 on a field of view of 120x20 degrees, and detection ranges that exceed 200 meters for pedestrians and over 300 meters for vehicles,” LeddarTech claims.
Crucially, the Quebec company has also now established the basis of a future supply chain supporting lidar unit production, with Hamamatsu, Excelitas, Osram and the VCSEL maker TriLumina all lined up to provide key optical components and Texas Instruments set to provide the necessary microprocessors.
“These new solid-state solutions make lidar sensors available at volume pricing below the $100 threshold, meeting cost levels that will enable the successful commercial deployment of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles,” reckons LeddarTech, with its CEO Charles Boulanger adding:
“LeddarTech-based solutions bridge today’s lidar technology gap and will take lidar mainstream, as our clients transition from today’s autonomous car prototypes to high-volume deployments.”
The company said that it would be accepting orders from “select” automotive clients for delivery of development samples starting in May this year, with volume commercial availability of the “LCA2” product in 2018 and a follow-up design earmarked for 2019.
Not to be outdone, Quanergy Systems showed off a new concept, in the form of a lidar-equipped headlight concept developed with Japanese parts firm Koito.
“The Koito headlights, which will be located on the corners of a vehicle, each incorporates two compact Quanergy S3 solid state lidar that perform sensing forward and to the side, and provide real-time long-range 3D views of the environment around the vehicle and the ability to recognize and track objects,” the firm said, with CEO Louay Eldada adding:
“We believe that headlights with integrated lidar sensors will help accelerate the commercialization of cars with autonomous driving capability and will help reinvent the driving experience.”
Thermal imaging for drones
Outside of the autonomous driving theme, FLIR chose CES to launch its new “Duo” camera for drones: it is said to be the industry's first multi-sensor camera to feature a combination of FLIR's low-cost “Lepton” thermal microcamera core, a high-definition 1080p visible camera, and FLIR's patented MSX technology.
Elsewhere, augmented reality (AR) was a predictably hot topic, and one that sees a new collaboration between the microdisplay technology specialist Kopin, which has set up a joint venture with computing giant Lenovo.
Lenovo New Vision, a new subsidiary of Lenovo’s venture capital wing, will produce AR smart headsets for a broad range of enterprise applications. Under the terms of the deal, Kopin is to provide a small capital investment, along with industrial design solutions, and know-how to utilize key Kopin components to Lenovo New Vision, including the micro-displays, optics, and software.
Kopin’s long-time CEO John Fan said: “By combining Kopin’s advanced wearable technology and Lenovo’s strength as a global IT and equipment solutions provider, both parties can accelerate the commercialization of AR products and succeed in the fast-growing China and global AR markets.”
Since the demise of the Google Glass project, smart glasses have generally belonged in the realm of CES past, but this year’s event saw the Intel-backed Rochester, New York, company Vuzix showcase what it sees as the future of smart glasses and AR technology, in the form of its new “Blade 3000” smart sunglasses.
Said to be one of the world's first wireless smart sunglasses running on Android with integrated video and AR overlays, one of the key technologies inside the design is a novel optical waveguide etched into the lens that is said to provide a better viewing experience.
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