LiDAR utilizes laser beams to construct three-dimensional (3D) models of varied objects and environments. These accurate representations of any surveyed environment enable us to create more advanced and autonomous technologies that can perform tasks ranging from speed adaptation to collision prevention to assembly line monitoring.
However, the most tangible benefit of LiDAR is its ability to improve business efficiency and revenues. By implementing LiDAR technology across business segments like manufacturing, construction, automotive, and more, business leaders can improve employee safety, ensure adherence to company policy, and minimize risks like data privacy breaches. Below, we look at LiDAR technology in more detail, including the key technology providers in the market today and its various applications.
What is LiDAR technology, and how does it work?
LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is a technology that remotely senses depth by bouncing laser light off objects to determine their distance. By timing the flight of reflected light pulses, LiDAR instruments create maps of scenes based on the objects within them. While the most recognized use case for LiDAR is probably that of autonomous vehicles, the technology has a wide range of applications, including advanced smartphone cameras, industrial robotics, indoor mapping, outdoor mapping (topographic LiDAR is used to map landforms, while bathymetric LiDAR can “see through” water to measure the height ocean floors and riverbeds), smart cities-focused data gathering, speed limit enforcement, mining operations management, and even space exploration.
What are the primary components of a LiDAR instrument?
A typical LiDAR instrument comprises three core components: a laser, a scanner, and a specialized GPS receiver. These components are used cohesively to take measurements and make rapid mathematical calculations regarding direction and distance. Automated vehicles are a good example of how the LiDAR technology’s components work cohesively to provide a mapped environment.
First, the laser source emits laser signals at a rate of up to millions per second. These laser signals collide with objects and terrain around the vehicle, bouncing back to the scanner. Finally, the GPS receiver, which contains an IMU (inertial measurement unit), works to calculate the direction and distance of each laser, calculating the time taken for each wave to return. The result of this process is a 3D map, or “point cloud,” which the vehicle’s onboard computer can use to navigate safely through the environment.
Why is LiDAR important?
LiDAR’s ability to instantly generate precise, three-dimensional representations of surroundings is crucial to delivering on the promise of self-driving cars, which is as much about the effectiveness as safety. Automated vehicles depend on this technology to operate safely and process decisions rapidly, similar to a human brain.
Elsewhere, the technology’s remote sensing capabilities contribute to helping surveyors achieve more accurate readings, boosting the productivity of farming and forestry operations via the ability to penetrate dense vegetation, and producing higher-quality digital photographs and video.
What are some of the primary types of LiDAR solutions?
Terrestrial and bathymetric LiDAR are two of the most commonly used LiDAR solutions, and each has a different purpose in environmental analysis and data gathering.
Terrestrial LiDAR, often known as terrestrial laser scanning (TLS), uses ground-based, contact-free instruments to measure and gather point clouds. This type of instrument can be further divided into categories that include mobile LiDAR and static LiDAR systems.
These are the types of LiDAR scanners used in autonomous vehicles, though they can also be found in other transportation, such as boats and trains. This technology is often chosen because it can collect a greater number of data points to produce more detailed maps. One of its uses is scanning infrastructure, such as railway lines, to determine its condition and any points needing repair or attention.
This type of LiDAR instrument usually is mounted atop a tripod and used to focus on a specific area. It's capable of scanning in all directions, including above the instrument. These types of scanners are used not only outdoors but inside of structures too. Engineers and architects frequently use them, and it's common to see them by the roadside when projects are being carried out.
Unlike TLS, bathymetric LiDAR is most commonly employed for use in water. While some types of LiDAR use infrared, bathymetric systems rely instead on a combination of infrared and green spectrum lasers. The green laser signals can penetrate through water, while the infrared beams gather LiDAR data on the sea floor or riverbed. As a result, bathymetric LiDAR is usually involved in coastal projects.
Who are some of the top technology providers building LiDAR sensors and LiDAR systems?
There are quite a few start-ups and established tech providers working in the LiDAR space, and many are focused on enhancing the efficiency and safety of autonomous driving. Below are some of the top LiDAR technology partners currently operating in the industry.
Velodyne Lidar focuses on the provision of solutions for transportation, robotics, infrastructure, navigation, smart cities, and more. In 2007, Velodyne’s real-time surround view systems were utilized by autonomous vehicles in the DARPA grand challenge. Decades later, the company produces a range of LiDAR solutions, including Alpha Prime, Ultra Puck, Puck Hi-Res, and more. Their LiDAR software, Vella, is a development kit that provides access to the company’s perception software features.
With more than 50 commercial partners, Luminar focuses on improving safety and efficiency in autonomous transportation. The company believes that this narrow focus will allow faster progress in what it sees as the most pressing use case for LiDAR tech. Recently, Nissan and Luminar partnered under the former company's long-term vision, Nissan Ambition 2030. Using LiDAR technology, the project aims to significantly reduce autonomous vehicle collisions in highly complex scenarios.
In early 2022, AEye was named as one of the world's most innovative companies due to its advancements in automotive and transportation, specifically around intelligent sensing. The company's history began with one man, Luis Dussan, an aerospace designer of weapons targeting systems for military jets. In 2022, AEye showcased its future vision for adaptive LiDAR in automotive vehicles. The company also demonstrated its 4Sight Intelligent Sensing Platform, designed to allow for sensor positioning across multiple mounting locations.
Ouster provides high-performance LiDAR solutions for robotics, industrial machinery, vehicles, and more. They've supplied these technologies to companies of varying sizes, from startups to Fortune 500s, including the U.S. army and NVIDIA. Ouster currently produces over 75 unique sensor configurations and has over 250 patents, either granted or pending. The company has a global presence, with offices in the US, France, and China.
Partnering with household names that include Microsoft, Sony, and Sharp, MicroVision has also supplied LiDAR technology to the U.S. Military. The company’s technology undergoes rigorous ADAS scenarios to improve automotive safety in complex environments. In June 2022, MicroVision's technology was applied to scenarios including complex highway situations, changing lighting, tunnels, and more.
Innoviz recently won its third design award for vehicle automation within the Volkswagen brand. Innoviz was the first LiDAR provider chosen by a major automotive company (BMW) to mass-produce level 3 to 5 automated vehicles. Additionally, the company has secured collaborative partnerships with several Tier 1 automotive supplies. In August 2022, Innoviz confirmed that its LiDAR sensors would soon be installed in all automated vehicles within Volkswagen Group brands.
Quanergy Systems is responsible for products that include mechanical LiDAR sensors. The M Series is popular for applications in security, smart cities, and smart spaces. Located in Silicon Valley, Quanergy Systems has around a decade's worth of experience in optics, artificial intelligence, and more.
Blickfeld primarily produces LiDAR systems for automotive, industrial, and software applications, including Cube 1, Cube Range 1, Cube 1 Outdoor, and Qb2. Their hardware can be used for applications that include volume measurement, crowd analytics, and security threat detection and alarm generation. They're also involved in the autonomous vehicle movement, and their products are often used in conjunction with drones.
Ibeo Automotive is another provider of LiDAR sensors seeking to improve safety in autonomous driving. The company developed the world's first 4D solid-state LiDAR sensor and offers two products: the ibeo LUX and ibeoNEXT Solid-State. The latter sensor can determine not only an object’s X, Y, and Z positioning but also its velocity.
Aeva was founded by two former Apple engineers. The company has produced the world's first 4D LiDAR system, using camera-level resolution in its sensor capabilities. With this product, Aeva quotes a resolution capable of delivering up to 20x the resolution offered by legacy sensors. Using this technology, it is said that autonomous vehicles should be capable of improving small hazard detection at top speeds and twice the scanning distance of older LiDAR technology.
What are some of the trends disrupting LiDAR technology?
The expansion of LiDAR technology is growing exponentially, given its considerable advantages to automation and business improvement. There’s a potential for innovative new solutions to completely transform the way that numerous industries work at present.
Another area seeing rapid advancement is robotics. Industry leaders like Boston Dynamics have already made giant steps forward with agility and movement in recent years, and LiDAR technology is allowing for further innovations in the industry. With LiDAR sensors on board, robots are capable of more refined, minor movements and adjustments. For example, when pallet loading, a robot using a LiDAR sensor can dynamically adjust its grip in real-time to reduce mistakes and improve efficiency.
LiDAR is transforming the management of safety in the workplace. This is especially notable in areas such as assembly lines, where LiDAR technology can monitor for quality and adherence to proper operating and safety procedures. This includes flagging employee behavior that could lead to personal injury. LiDAR is also capable of ensuring that adequate manufacturing processes have been followed. For example, when a component or product is not assembled correctly, and either falls short of brand expectations or could cause injury through repetitive use (automotive components).
LiDAR technology has underpinned many space missions undertaken in the last half-century, as it has numerous benefits over traditional radar technology for remote sensing from space. NASA has even adapted LiDAR technology for use on the International Space Station. Their instrument, known as the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI), provides a detailed 3D representation of every forest on Earth. It also reveals data on the carbon cycle that has not been possible to gather before. This has allowed us to determine the number of trees that must be planted to offset the impact of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.
What are some of the business impacts of LiDAR adoption and utilizing LiDAR data?
LiDAR technology's extensive applications constantly transform the world and how we work. It is one of the critical building blocks of advancing automation into the future. Here are a few of the business impacts that LiDAR adoption can have on businesses and processes:
Increased efficiency in measurement-focused applications: LiDAR is critical to climate change monitoring and mitigation. With this technology, geologists and scientists can more accurately track and observe agriculture patterns, deforestation, and more.
Perhaps one of the most widely used applications of LiDAR is in surveying. Compared to traditional methods of gathering data, LiDAR is vastly superior, saving on staffing and resources. Point clouds created by LiDAR technology have a minute margin of error, allowing for more informed business decisions and risk analysis.
Smart cities technology development: LiDAR is an essential driver in the creation of connected smart cities. Applications include traffic and pedestrian monitoring, security management, urban planning, and autonomous vehicle navigation. Crucially, LiDAR technology can gather information about a city without breaching privacy concerns in the way traditional cameras might. Data can be collected at any time, even in low light conditions, which conventional cameras and data gathering methods struggle with.
Low-tech industry transformation: LiDAR has real potential to revolutionize low-tech industries, such as construction and manufacturing. By combining traditional, operational technology with LiDAR and other connected devices, businesses can lower costs and improve revenue while mitigating risks such as data privacy. For example, the technology could:
Monitor assembly lines for quality control and error handling;
Automate the operation of heavy machinery, such as agricultural vehicles;
Improve employee safety by identifying risky behaviors;
Avoid capturing personally identifiable information while gathering data.
With LiDAR, it’s clear that there is real potential to reduce wasted time and resources and improve safety and efficiency in the workplace. Businesses can benefit and improve their revenues by introducing LiDAR into existing processes while gaining greater insights into where operations can be improved.
Looking to better understand the latest technology trends like LiDAR? Find out more about our Research as a Service and how we can help you and your organization stay at the forefront of innovation.