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BMW, Toyota venture units back lidar developer Blackmore

23 Mar 2018

US-based technology firm raises $18M in series B round aimed at ramping 'long-range' system for autonomous vehicles.

Blackmore Sensors and Analytics, a Bozeman, Montana, firm working on lidar technology for future deployment in autonomous vehicles, says it has raised $18 million in a series B round of venture finance.

Led by BMWi Ventures, and with a contribution from Toyota AI Ventures, the investment is intended to scale production of its frequency-modulated continuous wave (FMCW) lidar sensors.

Silicon photonics
According to the company, which also raised $3.2 million in late 2016, the approach will provide long-range sensing at low-cost: a combination that has so far eluded the scores of firms working on automotive lidar.

Most of those developers have concentrated on lidar systems based around pulsed lasers that generate time-of-flight ranging data of a vehicle’s surroundings, but Blackmore is taking a different tack with a CW solution that incorporates tried-and-tested indium phosphide technology and recent advances in silicon photonics.

“Blackmore's optical layer is built on standard optical fiber communications components,” notes the company on its web site. “By leveraging decades of development in optical fiber communication, we can say with confidence that our designs are scalable and reliable.”

It adds that recent trends in coherent optical fiber communication point to photonic integration in indium phosphide as the best route to cost reduction and performance enhancements in high-speed communications.

“The same technology is allowing Blackmore to integrate designs to chip-scale lidar,” states the firm, claiming that the extremely high dynamic range of the setup is able to “see” both very bright and very dark objects – the latter typically posing the toughest challenge for lidar.

Range performance
Zach Barasz, the BMW i Ventures partner focused on automotive investments, said in a release from Blackmore: “Advances in new sensor technologies, like lidar, are going to make cars safer and, eventually, autonomous. Blackmore has unique and innovative FMCW lidar technology that delivers a new dimension of data to future vehicles.”

Toyota AI Ventures managing director Jim Adler added: “Blackmore's ground-breaking FMCW lidar technology is designed to eliminate interference, improve long-range performance, and support both range and velocity - a triple threat to make autonomous driving safer.”

According to Blackmore’s CEO Randy Reibel, it is that ability to detect velocity at range that differentiates Blackmore's sensor from those of its many competitors. “Having the ability to measure both the speed and the distance to any object gives self-driving systems more information to navigate safely,” Reibel says. “Blackmore provides software and analytics so that its customers can get the most out of the FMCW lidar sensors.”

The company, which also won support from Millennium Technology Value Partners and Next Frontier Capital in the series B round, says it will use the investment to scale the production of the FMCW lidar sensor for both advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and self-driving applications.

“Increased production capacity will allow Blackmore to support the growing sector of autonomous driving teams demanding a superior lidar solution,” it concluded.

Blackmore is also developing the FMCW approach for more traditional geospatial applications of lidar, saying that the long range of its technology means mapping tasks can be completed much more quickly than with conventional pulsed lidar systems.

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