27 Jul 2017
German lighting giant makes move into autonomous driving technology alongside spin-out from Canada's National Optics Institute.
Announced alongside Osram’s latest quarterly financial results, the move is said to represent a “mid-double-digit million euros” investment in LeddarTech, which spun out from Canada’s National Optics Institute (INO) a decade ago.
LeddarTech’s CEO Charles Boulanger said he saw a “great natural fit” between the two companies, boasting: “LeddarTech is on its way to becoming the reference in solid-state lidars for the automotive industry, and we believe our association with the market leader in automotive lighting represents an important milestone in that direction.”
Osram’s investment in LeddarTech is cited as part of a wider financing round currently under way, with further details expected to follow soon.
The Canadian firm is one of dozens of well-funded startups and spin-outs now working on lidar for autonomous vehicles, and describes its “Leddar” approach as a “unique combination of advanced lightwave signal processing and software algorithms”.
Also targeting markets like drones and industrial automation, LeddarTech says that its technology is able to recover distance information for every object in its field of view, thanks to the way that its patented software is able to expand the sampling rate and resolution of the lidar signal’s “echo”.
In a white paper describing its approach, the company claims that it is compatible with a variety of low-cost photodetectors and light sources, including PIN photodiodes, VCSELs and even white-light LEDs. Others in the emerging auto lidar sector – notably Luminar Technologies and Intel-backed AEye – insist that higher-specification 1550 nm lasers are necessary for true autonomy and to "see" darker objects at longer distances, largely because the more eye-safe wavelength provides for a much higher photon “budget” and greatly improved signal-to-noise.
Range at low power
Last year LeddarTech claimed that its technology offered a range of 250 meters – seen as crucial for genuine autonomy behind the wheel of a car – and a field of view of 140°, even in a system with relatively low optical power.
The potential compatibility with white-light LEDs may be of particular interest to Osram, which is already one of the world’s leading providers of automotive lighting products and has recently developed a variety of intelligent and adaptable forward-lighting technologies - some based around lasers - as well as a compact, four-channel lidar source operating at 905 nm.
Its CTO Stefan Kampmann said in a statement on the LeddarTech deal: “Osram is already the world's leading provider of sensor lights for autonomous vehicles and is experiencing steadily rising demand in this field. We see the investment in LeddarTech as a logical step on the way to becoming the leading provider of solutions in this area.”
Earlier this month Osram confirmed that it was in talks to set up a joint venture focused on intelligent automotive lighting with tire and parts firm Continental. “No agreement on material commercial terms has been reached yet,” stated Osram in response to prior media speculation of a hook-up. It also pointed out that semiconductor-based lighting modules for automotive applications represented sales of around €150 million in its most recent fiscal year.
More jobs in Germany
Meanwhile Osram has committed itself to establishing state-of-the-art technology and creating additional jobs at its facilities in Germany, part of the company’s wider innovation initiative known as “Diamond”. And autonomous driving will be part of that effort.
CEO Olaf Berlien said: “The plan for Germany is one of our most important strategic decisions of recent years. By expanding the areas of autonomous driving, digitalization and LED technology, which will become increasingly significant, we are making a commitment to Germany as a high-tech location.”
More specifically, that investment is to be focused on its sites in Berlin and Schwabmünchen, facilities that have suffered job losses in recent years as part of the move away from traditional lighting technologies.
“Berlin has proved to be a suitable location for the future business of autonomous driving,” announced the lighting firm. “Over the coming years, the plant is set to be transformed into a high-technology center.
Meanwhile the Schwabmünchen site, where the company used to produce basic materials used in conventional light bulbs, is now set to become a facility for LED epiwafer production.
In its latest financial quarter, Osram posted a net income of €64 million as sales rose 6.2 per cent year-on-year to €1.06 billion.
It said that the Opto Semiconductors (Osram OS) subsidiary experienced high demand for consumer applications including components used in iris-scan security for smart phones. Strong growth in general lighting and the automotive sector also helped to boost company revenues.
Quarterly sales at the Osram OS division jumped nearly 20 per cent year-on-year, reaching €439 million, with the wider company now anticipating full-year sales to grow approximately 8 per cent on last year’s total of €3.79 billion.
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