Lidar’s future is dubious until its price and size are cut to fractions of their existing values, as Voyant hopes. Lidars will not be widespread as long as they are sandwich-sized gadgets that cost thousands of dollars, but Voyant has gathered funds to bring their smaller, cheaper, more readily made, yet still highly competent lidar to market. When I wrote on the company’s seed financing in 2019, the objective was to use silicon photonics to compress lidar from sandwich to fingertip size.
The true problem for practically every lidar business, though, is lowering the price. Between a powerful laser, a competent receiver, and a mechanical or optical way of directing the beam, it is just not possible to make something inexpensive enough that you can easily place several of them in a car for less than $30,000.
COVID was seeking a method to transform a promising prototype produced by co-founders Chris Phare and Steven Miller into a functional and marketable product when CEO Peter Stern joined the firm just as it was getting started. They came up with a photonics-based frequency-modulated continuous-wave (FMCW) system (just go with it for now) that could be built in current commercial fabs after going back to basics.
“Every other system is crammed with a lot of expensive things — our idea is a mass-producible chip, like anything else,” he explained, citing the absence of a strong precision laser as a significant cost and space reduction. “The laser sources that individuals use are often expensive, require setup and calibration and have lens difficulties… Our laser sources are essentially out-of-date datacom lasers the size of sesame seeds that have been gently reconditioned. These items cost around $5 each, and the laser route costs about $30.”
The FMCW approach, which is more commonly employed in radar, allows for such a small scale. This technology overcomes numerous concerns with standard lidar systems by using a continuous beam of light encoded with recognizable data patterns and continually altering its frequency. In addition, the way Voyant does it, it is cheap — with scale, it is conceivable to reach under a hundred dollars. The chip contains all of the optics, beam management, sensors, and other components.
They will not be competing with Velodyne or any of the other young lidar businesses in the automotive market, such as Luminar and Baraja. “We’re too underfunded to go through an automobile development cycle,” Stern explained, and it is a costly industry to enter into. “Because we’re less expensive, we see applications in robotics, mobility, industrial safety… pretty much anyplace someone wants to use a Velodyne puck, and we can displace them fairly fast for non-automotive uses.”
“Wait, I have lidar on my phone – what’s the big deal?” you might be thinking. Lidar devices can certainly build at this scale and size, but their capabilities are severely constrained. Excellent for scanning your living space, but unreliable beyond a few meters especially in bright or foggy conditions. Although Voyant is not targeting vehicles, its gadgets do feature auto-grade characteristics, such as millimeter accuracy out to a hundred meters, which is exactly what you want when you are driving at 70 mph.