Laser Technology Breakthrough to Revolutionize Self Driving Cars

Google's self-driving car relies on a roof-mounted LIDAR sensor to see the world around it.

Google’s self-driving car relies on a roof-mounted LIDAR sensor to see the world around it.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have developed a new breed of laser technology that could significantly reduce the size and power consumption of LIDARs, or motor sensors on self-driving cars, thus potentially revolutionizing self-driving cars of the future.

Self-driving cars use LIDARs that are quite large and expensive as seen above, Google’s car used  $80,000 worth LIDARs.  “This is important for unmanned vehicles on land and in the sky,” says Weijian Yang, one of the researchers of the project.

Yang’s work builds a cheaper LIDAR and a German company SICK is offering a LIDAR for less than $10,000, and researchers from MIT and the National Research Foundation of Singapore, have been working on a self-driving golf cart with these LIDARs. (see video below).

As LIDAR technology improves, not only self-driving cars but many motion-based equipment will become cheaper and affordable, including golf carts, robots, and flying drones, he says and cites its application in optical coherence tomography, or OCT, which is used in medical imaging equipment.

But on the flip side of it, Berkeley’s method allows lasers to change wavelengths more frequently—one microsecond versus 10 or so milliseconds—and that means a LIDAR could potentially take more readings, more quickly, taking a more accurate picture of its surroundings.

Emilio Frazzoli, an MIT researcher who worked self-driving golf carts, says that smaller, cheaper LIDARs aren’t essential to the near future of self-driving cars.

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