Optical phased array transforms LiDAR

Nov. 16, 2022
Is optical phased array LiDAR technology right for you?

As LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology continues to gain traction, more versatile and diverse use cases are emerging. While the autonomous vehicle market is one of the biggest or best-known use cases for this technology, it’s far from the only one. LiDAR has the potential to transform a vast number of applications across industries—ranging from improving physical security to increasing efficiency in warehouses, and much more.

As adoption of LiDAR increases, one specific approach to LiDAR is rapidly emerging: optical phased array (OPA) technology.

How does OPA compare to other LiDAR approaches?

Traditional LiDAR approaches tend to be mostly mechanical and have moving parts, but OPA is true 100% solid state. Without using any moving parts, this technology can manipulate the direction of light beams in an OPA transmitter and the view direction of sensors in a photon receiver by controlling the optical properties on a tiny scale.

OPA technology offers advantages over other LiDAR scanning techniques, including low-profile form factors that seamlessly integrate into designs, high reliability for daily use in harsh shock-vibration environments, adaptive and intelligent situational awareness, and low-cost production at large scale. It’s also more durable and reliable than other mechanical approaches.

Hardware is generally commoditized as time passes by for semiconductor and software technologies. The OPA design follows this natural trend to enable scalable volume deployment, inheriting both the semiconductor cost trajectory and software scaling.

Key attributes of OPA-based LiDAR

OPA-based LiDAR is more adaptable to different conditions. This is important if you consider that conditions can vary greatly in terms of lighting, weather, temperature, and so on. Related to this is adaptive smart zoom capabilities. Electronic scanning makes it possible to zoom in on regions of interest and scan more adaptively. The sensor may be programmed to adjust the steering angles of its laser beam in real time based on the perception cues from the environment. Some strategies, for instance, include smart zooming capabilities that enable dynamic zooming to deliver coarse or fine views without losing sight of the larger field of view. In a nutshell, the sensor hardware is enabled with intelligence through the software-controlled beam formation and steering, which directs the beam precisely where it’s needed.

With a mean time between failure (MTBF) of over 100,000 hours, OPA’s solid-state characteristics offer immunity to shock and vibration. That makes them ideal for scenarios such as autonomous-guided vehicles working on rugged terrain (think mining industry).

And when compared to rival LiDAR sensors, OPA-based solid-state LiDAR leverages established CMOS silicon fabrication techniques, which can facilitate extremely high-volume manufacturing at scale—for a significantly lower cost.

New use cases

Mechanical LiDAR is the mainstream of current LiDAR deployments. But due to its low cost and dependability, solid-state LiDAR ultimately serves as the cornerstone for the democratization of LiDAR.

With its compact size, lower cost, and high reliability, OPA LiDAR is the architecture best suited for use in heavy-duty, high-vibration robotics applications, such as mining or construction. Mobile equipment is a significant application, as well—especially as more organizations adopt technology like automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), they need technology that will help guide these vehicles to let them know their surroundings and avoid collisions.

What’s your use case?

It’s important to understand “solid state” means higher reliability compared to mechanical systems. It’s a different means to the same end as other types of LiDAR solutions, but it’s ultimately about understanding your use case and which type will work best for it.

Solid state/OPA is more reliable for harsher environments or rugged terrain. Any devices with moving mirrors tend to break down after short use in some of the harsher environments. Mining trucks sustain many shock vibrations over rugged terrain, so LiDAR with mechanical motors tend to fall apart in these very harsh environments.

A world of possibilities

OPA has evolved over the years, and its full utility is now being realized. OPA-based LiDAR offers multiple clear advantages to many industries and applications, far beyond the autonomous vehicle market.

About the Author

Tianyue Yu | Chief Development Officer and Co-founder, Quanergy Systems

Dr. Tianyue Yu is chief development officer and co-founder at Quanergy Systems (Sunnyvale, CA).

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