Q&A with Lumotive’s Kevin Camera

June 20, 2023
Lumotive’s VP of Product Kevin Camera chats with Laser Focus World about the company, its light-control metasurface chips, and what it means for the LiDAR realm.

Laser Focus World: Can you introduce us to Lumotive?

Kevin Camera: Lumotive is an optical semiconductor company that pioneered light-control metasurface (LCM) technology to produce the world’s first truly solid-state beam-steering chip. LCMs outperform traditional mechanical beam-steering systems, thanks to their compact size, weight, and durability. They extend the reach of three-dimensional (3D) time-of-flight sensors, which are typically flash illuminated, by adding the performance advantages of beam steering within the same form factor. By combining the best of both worlds, LCM-based sensors are enabling LiDAR to become a pervasive 3D-sensing technology across many industries.

Lumotive’s products are our LCM chips. We sell LCMs to our direct customers and provide a production-ready reference design—complete with software algorithms and manufacturing processes—to enable maximum design flexibility and minimum time to market for sensor makers. LiDAR sensors that use LCMs for electronic beam steering offer multiple benefits compared to conventional LiDAR systems. These include better outdoor performance, the ability to set scanning patterns through software, reduced interference from reflected or aggressor signals, and high laser output power—within a small, easily integrable package.

LFW: What goes into designing/fabricating metasurface beam-steering chips?

Camera: The key to designing and fabricating Lumotive’s LCM chips is to leverage traditional silicon complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) manufacturing techniques that are well established and benefit from the massive economies of scale that already exist within the semiconductor industry.

While our manufacturing processes are innovative and patented, they only involve techniques, equipment, and materials available to any foundry worldwide. By avoiding the need for exotic or expensive new recipes, LCM beam steering can be scaled up to any volume imaginable—and benefits from the corresponding cost structure—using the current infrastructure.

LFW: Can you describe the role of metasurfaces/optics/photonics in your chip?

Camera: Lumotive’s solid-state beam steering chips are based on the concept of dynamic metasurfaces. A metasurface is an array of deeply subwavelength optical structures used to manipulate light. Optical metasurfaces bend and manipulate light in ways not naturally achievable—overcoming the limitations of traditional optics like lenses and mirrors—and are very thin and lightweight.

Most of the research and recent commercialization of metasurfaces focused on static metasurfaces—their properties aren’t dynamically or electronically controlled. Lumotive is the first to commercially deploy dynamic optical metasurfaces and we’re the first to apply them to LiDAR. Our LCM dynamic metasurface chips represent a fundamental departure from conventional LiDAR systems—making them more compact, nimble, and reliable.

LFW: What does your chip mean for LiDAR?

Camera: Our partnership with Hokuyo (a manufacturer of optical devices) sets the stage for widespread adoption of LCMs within industrial automation applications. The wide field of view and extended dynamic range, delivered in a compact form factor, enables seamless integration into machinery across a diverse range of applications from robotics to conveyor systems.

The improved performance and flexibility over previous sensors—one or more LiDARs plus cameras—are present in existing deployments. Superior outdoor performance compared to flash illumination ensures reliable operation within all operational domains, including expansive industrial sites or warehouses with mixed indoor/outdoor environments and challenging lighting conditions. The scanning system’s ability to minimize interference and multipath effects also results in better point cloud quality, which is crucial for accurate sensing within complex industrial scenarios.

As a truly solid-state beam steering device without any moving parts or mechanical inertia, LCMs also provide the novel ability to implement ‘random access scanning’ that can steer the beam in any pattern—without the constraints of monotonic physical motion. For example, resolution and field-of-view can be changed dynamically to suit either the application or the environment in real time.

Dwell time at each angular position can also be controlled to increase sensitivity of the system or to implement never-before-seen features such as ‘high dynamic range scanning,’ where lines are illuminated more than once in immediate succession at different intensities to better resolve targets of different reflectivities. These new capabilities deliver on the promise of software-defined LiDAR, where a single piece of hardware can be configured statically or dynamically to function as one or more virtual sensors.

LFW: Any big challenges to overcome while creating the chips?

Camera: Lumotive embarked on a journey to make LiDAR technology as ubiquitous and affordable as cameras, and realized early on that the path to market success necessitated a fundamental shift in the way LiDAR systems are built. We had this vision that high-quality 3D sensing shouldn’t be a luxury reserved for niche applications. It must be broadly accessible to all types of use cases and product platforms. Only then can LiDAR reach the critical mass necessary to develop a mature ecosystem of solutions and achieve the economies of scale necessary to eliminate barriers related to cost.

Despite the much more difficult technical challenges that would need to be overcome—compared to simply relying on exotic materials and techniques to meet performance gains—it became apparent that leveraging only well established, widely available silicon fabrication technology was the key to producing millions of LCM chips annually and achieving our goals of broad adoption and ubiquity for LiDAR as a dominant 3D-sensing modality.

Through significant innovation and perseverance for several years, our team was ultimately able to solve these challenges and deliver a cost-effective manufacturing process without sacrificing performance, reliability, and flexibility. Both LCM technology and Lumotive as a company are now prepared to enter mass production and scale to the levels we knew were possible by following our original vision.

LFW: Are you ready to roll now?

Camera: Not only are LCMs entering mass production now, but they’re backed by Lumotive’s production-ready LiDAR reference designs. With both top-tier manufacturing partners and our own engineering expertise, we enable our customers to bring their advanced 3D-sensing products to market quickly and efficiently.

LFW: What’s next?

Camera: Beyond the Hokuyo design win, we have several other production engagements in the pipeline now, which we plan to make public announcements about within the near future. From a development perspective, we’re committed to engineering innovation at both the device and system levels. Our LCM core technology and shipping products are constantly improving, and future iterations will be more highly integrated. The benefits to our customers will be smaller size and lower costs—while delivering even higher resolution and greater functionality.

About the Author

Sally Cole Johnson | Senior Technical Editor

Sally Cole Johnson, Laser Focus World’s senior technical editor, is a science and technology journalist who specializes in physics and semiconductors. She wrote for the American Institute of Physics for more than 15 years, complexity for the Santa Fe Institute, and theoretical physics and neuroscience for the Kavli Foundation.

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