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ON Semi snaps up photodetector maker SensL

11 May 2018

Acquisition of Irish developer of low-light sensors further broadens ON Semi’s offering for autonomous vehicle applications.

Image sensor giant ON Semiconductor has added to its already wide-ranging technology portfolio with the acquisition of Ireland-based SensL Technologies.

Based in Cork, where it was spun out of the Tyndall National Institute in 2004 by co-founders Carl Jackson and Joseph O'Keeffe, SensL specializes in low-light sensors including silicon photomultipliers, single-photon avalanche detectors (SPADs), and lidar sensors.

A little over a month ago, SensL released a 1 x 16 silicon photomultiplier array aimed at automotive lidar – widely regarded as a key element of future autonomous vehicle navigation systems.

In a statement announcing the SensL deal, Nasdaq-listed ON Semiconductor said: “This acquisition positions ON Semiconductor to extend its market leadership in automotive sensing applications for ADAS [advanced driver assistance systems] and autonomous driving with expanded capabilities in imaging, radar and lidar.”

Business as usual
A message on SensL’s web site indicated that, in terms of product availability, nothing would change as a result of the deal. “There are no plans to change any of our current product lines,” stated the firm. “In fact we plan to invest considerably to maintain our market leading position in medical imaging, lidar, radiation detection, and biophotonics applications. We plan to augment our product portfolio and are planning an extensive roadmap.”

It added that every SensL employee, including management, would now join the 34,000-strong ON Semiconductor ranks.

Phoenix-headquartered ON Semiconductor, which owns a major sensor manufacturing facility in Rochester, New York, also said that by combining SensL’s expertise with previously acquired radar technology and design centers in Israel and the UK, it would be “uniquely positioned” to provide a comprehensive suite of sensor solutions for next-generation, highly autonomous vehicles.

SensL is to become a part of ON Semi’s Image Sensor Group business unit, whose senior VP and general manager Taner Ozcelik commented:

“The entire SensL team, founded by [CTO] Carl Jackson and led by [CEO] Bryan Campbell, have done a great job in bringing silicon photomultipliers to market and we look forward to expanding their market success and continuing their product portfolio in lidar, medical imaging and radiation detection.”

Ozcelik continued: “The automotive sensor fusion demand is growing at an accelerated pace, with a need for additional sensor technologies that are provided by the SensL team. Expanding our sensor technology assets and design capacity in Ireland will allow us to extend our leadership in established segments and to deliver new, world-class solutions for emerging segments.”

Affordable lidar
ON Semiconductor suggests that the silicon photomultiplier and SPAD technologies will “pave the way” towards affordable solid-state lidar. While lidar sensors are a common sight on today’s early autonomous vehicles, issues with data processing, range, and the classification of low-reflectivity objects are among key challenges to be overcome.

While some in the nascent industry - notably the US startups AEye and Luminar Technologies - advocate the use of longer-wavelength laser sources based on indium phosphide semiconductor structures for a much greater photon budget and longer range, these demand much more expensive photodetectors.

SensL’s technology is based on CMOS silicon, which promises to provide the economy of scale desired for cost-effective solid-state lidar. It could also enable advances in industrial robotics, machine vision, and drones, as well as mobile and other consumer applications, believes ON Semiconductor.

“This acquisition solidifies ON Semiconductor as a leader in sensing solutions for autonomous driving and ADAS applications, with a comprehensive portfolio of imaging, radar, ultrasound and lidar technologies,” claims the firm.

• Late last month ON Semoconductor, which aside from image sensors produces a wide range of power management, logic, timing and other electronic devices, reported quarterly sales of $1.38 billion, down 4 per cent year-on-year.

However, its CEO Keith Jackson said that “sustained demand” had put pressure on the semiconductor industry's supply chain. “We are pro-actively investing in our operations to further strengthen our industry-leading cost structure and to ensure supply for our customers,” he added.

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