Lidar’s future is uncertain unless, as Voyant hopes to do, its price and size are reduced to a fraction of their present value. As long as lidars are sandwich-sized devices costing thousands, they won’t be ubiquitous – so Voyant has raised some money to put its smaller, cheaper, easier-to-manufacture, yet very capable lidar into production.
When I wrote the company’s seed round in 2019, the goal was more or less to shrink lidar from sandwich to fingernail size using silicon photonics. But the real challenge for almost every lidar company is to bring the price down. Between a strong laser, a capable receptor, and a mechanical or optical means to aim the beam, it’s not easy to make something cheap enough that, like an LED or touchscreen, you can easily fit in a vehicle that costs less than $ 30,000.
CEO Peter Stern joined the company just as COVID started, and they were looking for a way to turn a promising prototype developed by co-founders Chris Phare and Steven Miller into a working and marketable product. After going back to basics, they arrived at a photonics-based frequency modulated continuous wave (FMCW) system (keep it up for now) that could be manufactured in existing commercial plants.
“Every other system is filled with a lot of expensive stuff — our vision is a mass-producible chip, like anything else,” he said, noting that the lack of a powerful precision laser is a huge cost and space savings. “What people use as a laser source generally costs a lot, needs to be mounted and calibrated, there are lens problems … our laser sources are basically outdated, somewhat refurbished datacom lasers the size of sesame seeds. These things cost about $5 each, the laser path costs $30, something like that.”
This small scale is made possible by the FMCW method, which is more commonly used in radar. A continuous beam of light encoded with identifiable data patterns and constantly adjusting the frequency, this approach avoids many of the problems with traditional lidar methods. And the way Voyant does it is cheap – possible to get under a hundred bucks with scale. All optics, beam processing and detection and so on are on the chip.
But they won’t go into Velodyne or any of the new lidar companies battling it out in the auto sector like Luminar and Baraja. “We’re under-funded to get us through an auto development cycle,” Stern said — and it’s a pretty expensive market to try to break into indeed. “Because we’re cheaper, we’re seeing applications in robotics, mobility, industrial safety… wherever someone wants to use a Velodyne puck, we can move them pretty quickly for non-automotive purposes.”
You may well be thinking “wait, I have lidar on my phone – what’s different about this?” You can certainly make lidar units at this scale and size, but their capabilities are extremely limited. Great for scanning your living room, but unreliable after a few meters or in sunshine or bad weather. Voyant isn’t going for cars, but its devices still have car-grade specs: millimeters accurate to a hundred yards, the kind of thing you want when you’re traveling 70 MPH.
The FMCW technique (also used in Aeva’s lidars) produces fewer dots, resulting in lower resolution, but provides an instantaneous Doppler rate. Knowing how fast the thing hitting your beam is moving without having to use extra scanning power or calculation is probably a big plus.
Another interesting competitive edge is the unit’s ability to discern not only distance and speed, but at least to a certain extent material. It uses a degree of polarization, a factor of the beam that is affected in different ways by different surfaces. So from a single data point, Voyant’s devices should be able to tell whether something is metal, asphalt, wood, skin, clothing, or fur, among other things. That’s incredibly useful for categorizing objects – if it has fur on it, it probably isn’t a tree or a car, right?
The $15.4 million A round was led by UP.Partners, with participation from LDV Capital and Contour Ventures. The company plans to use the money to move into production by putting its development kits in the hands of partners. The “Lark” is the more traditional of the two, bouncing the laser signal off a galvo mirror, while the “Sparrow” unit uses a 2D beam-steering technique that further reduces the need for mechanical components.
Stern said they will make about 200 units for partners by 2022 and begin taking commercial orders in 2023. the industrial market beyond the reach of companies that make larger, more expensive units.