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Lidar developer Blackmore sold to Amazon-backed startup

29 May 2019

Autonomous systems specialist Aurora Innovation agrees acquisition of Bozeman, Montana, firm.

Aurora Innovation, a Silicon Valley startup that recently landed a $500 million-plus venture round, is to spend some of the proceeds acquiring the photonics technology developer Blackmore Sensors and Analytics.

Known for its focus on high performance, Bozeman-based Blackmore’s approach uses multi-beam Doppler sensors to generate both position and velocity data. The technology won a Prism Award at the SPIE Photonics West event earlier this year, and BMW and Toyota are among the major auto firms to have tested it.

In an announcement dated May 23 on the blogging site medium.com, Aurora highlighted how Blackmore’s approach was based on technology “proven” in the optical communications sector, and said that lidar would be “critical” for developing a reliable self-driving system capable of navigating roads more safely than a human driver.

Difference of opinion
Acknowledging that all sensors have particular strengths and weaknesses, the Aurora team added: “Based on our decades of industry experience, we’re clear that lidar, specifically with the advancements Blackmore has made, is part of the ultimate sensing system.”

The Palo Alto firm has enlisted Chris Urmson, previously the head of Google’s self-driving program Waymo, as its CEO. Like most car companies working on autonomous vehicles, Waymo currently uses lidar as part of a suite of sensors to guide cars safely.

Not all car makers are sold on the idea of lidar technology, however. Tesla’s Elon Musk represents the photonics technology’s fiercest critic, while Japanese auto giant Nissan decided recently that it would only use radar and camera sensors on board its “ProPilot” semi-autonomous vehicles that are due to hit the road next year.

According to a Reuters report, Nissan’s general manager of advanced technology development, Tetsuya Iijima, said that lidar currently lacks the capability of radar and cameras. “It would be fantastic if lidar technology was at the level that we could use it in our systems but it’s not,” he is quoted as saying. “There’s an imbalance between its cost and its capabilities.”

While Blackmore’s approach offers high performance – the company claims to deliver range data beyond a distance of 450 meters - it is certainly not cheap. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January, the company said that by the end of June it would be shipping full systems to its strategic partners at a cost of “less than $20,000”.

Frequency modulation
Explaining the company’s use of frequency modulation (FM) instead of amplitude modulation, Blackmore CEO and co-founder Randy Reibel said during CES: “The reality is that physics ultimately wins, no matter how much funding chases inferior alternatives. But more importantly, FM-based Doppler lidar sensors are safer for self-driving applications.”

Aurora’s move to acquire Blackmore comes three months after it said it had closed a series B venture round worth a colossal $530 million. While the round was led by Sequoia Capital, Aurora said it also featured a significant contribution from Amazon. Lightspeed Venture Partners and Shell Ventures are among its other backers.

Commenting on Blackmore’s specific take on lidar technology, Aurora added: “Blackmore starts with photonic hardware proven in the optical fiber communications industry. Signal processing then maximizes FMCW’s advantages of high dynamic range, single-photon sensitivity, and interference immunity - technical jargon that translates into real safety margin, chip-level scalability, and all-weather performance.”

“Finally, the point-by-point velocity measurement enabled by FMCW will allow us to rewrite perception in robotics,” the Aurora team added. “Ultimately we believe that Blackmore’s technology will allow us to deliver a safer, more efficient, and more cost-effective driver than even the best systems available on the market today.”

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