MIT and DARPA Shrink Advanced Laser-Detection Technology

Lidar is an acronym for “light detection and ranging”. It’s a type of sensing technology that’s now being implemented in modern machinery such as self-driving cars, drones and robots. Lidar provides highly accurate 3D maps of an environment, making it perfect for devices that need to know exactly what’s around them. But current components are large and expensive, and require mechanical movement. Lidar isn’t a mobile technology, but this could be changing.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have developed a process for embedding lidar technology into a chip about the size of a grain of rice. Such “lidar chips” could be manufactured using the same process currently used for microprocessors, meaning significantly lower costs allow the technology to be integrated into much smaller devices. The chips are expected to cost about $10. The researchers also claim that their implementation can scan their environments 1,000 times faster than current lidar systems.

From experience we know it will take time before such research becomes commercialised, but it’s always a joy to see high-end, specialized components work their way down to consumer-level products. Accelerometers began life in multi-million dollar equipment but are now found on even sub-$100 smartphones, so it’s easy to imagine such low-cost lidar chips enabling a whole new range of products with depth-sensing capabilities.

Consumer mobile devices with computer vision are, of course, already coming to market. Google’s Tango, for example, is a tablet that uses a series of depth-perception sensors to map its environment, enabling advanced virtual reality experiences. Such advanced special awareness was already heading toward the mainstream. It’s nice to think this could be accelerating.