PARIS — Velodyne LiDAR is still lapping the field in an embryonic but increasingly competitive and complex lidar market, an advantage that grew this week when it unveiled a new 128-channel lidar sensor. The VLS-128 lidar unit boasts range (distance) and resolution that other lidars currently on sale have not been able to offer.
Velodyne’s VLS-128 is ideal for “high-speed highway driving, as it senses objects in farther distance,” said Anand Gopalan, CTO of Velodyne LiDAR. Moreover, it can capture “a rich set of data, high-resolution enough for object classifications without using a camera,” he added.
To pass as an effective sensor technology for highly automated vehicles traveling at 70 miles per hour on a highway, a lidar needs to be able to see at least 200 to 250 meters ahead, recognize that there’s an object out there, and determine what it is.
Compared to its own previous model (HDL-64), Gopalan said Velodyne’s VLS-128 can see objects three times farther (300 meters) and in three times resolution (0.1 degree).
Velodyne's VLS-128 point cloud (Source: Velodyne)
Velodyne's HDL-64 point cloud (Source: Velodyne)
Armed with these impressive specs, Velodyne hopes to set itself apart from traditional lidar sensors that are too low-quality or used primarily on a development platform. However, Velodyne’s own lidars, thus far, have been primarily used to create highly accurate 3D maps of their surroundings by bouncing laser beams off of nearby objects.
Velodyne’s VLS-128 is coming to the market as the competition for lidar is heating up, with the development community still wrestling with a host of newly emerging technologies.
Big car OEMs are snatching up lidar technology companies. For example, Ford bought Princeton Lightwave just last month, General Motors acquired lidar company Strobe Inc. also last month, and Continental got the lidar business from Advanced Scientific Concepts (ASC) last year, explained Akhilesh Kona, senior analyst, Automotive Electronics & Semiconductors at IHS Markit.
On one hand, the industry sees on the horizon a new laser emitter technology — above 1,400-nm wavelength. The laser in the new wavelength promises to bring to lidars higher resolution and longer range, said Kona. Princeton Lightwave, Continental (through its acquisition of ASC), and Luminar Technologies are all working on new laser emitter technology, he added.
On the other hand, technology suppliers continue to improve the durability, size, and cost of their lidars by developing a variety of beam-steering technologies, said Kona. They range from mechanical to MEMS and solid-state.
Lidar vs. other sensors
It’s important to note that the consensus among automakers is unequivocally the need for multi-modal sensors in autonomous vehicles. Velodyne isn’t claiming that lidars will replace other sensors already in automated vehicles. Rather, the company is pitching its improved lidars “for the safety and redundancy of the autonomous vehicles’ compute function.”
In assessing the performance improvements in lidar technologies, however, it’s helpful to understand how a lidar stacks up against other sensors such as vision and radar.
Phil Magney, founder and principal advisor for Vision Systems Intelligence (VSI Labs), noted, “Lidar’s advantage over other sensors is for every point you have a precise distance measurement. However, the problem with lidar is its relatively low resolution or its ability to distinguish colors.”
Velodyne’s VLS-128 lidar compensates the traditional weakness of lidars by increasing the resolution, so the new VLS-128 can classify objects as the company claims, explained Magney.
“Cameras, on the other hand, have high resolution, so their ability to classify an object is much better than lidar. But cameras don’t have the precision on distances,” noted Magney. “To deal with this, you usually fuse radar measurements to the objects from the camera and you end up with acceptable precision for some applications.”
What about radar? “Radar offers precise distance measurements but almost no resolution,” he said. “The radar will know there is an object there and its exact movement and velocity with respect to the vehicle. Newer radars (millimeter-range radar) do have resolution and can pick up on multiple points of an object and even classify it.”
Next page: Evolutionary path