Luminar Looks to the Skies

Luminar Technologies Partners with Airbus

On Monday, Luminar Technologies announced it would partner with Airbus, the French aerospace giant, to test technologies that could increase aircraft safety and ultimately lead to autonomous flight.

Luminar is known for its lidar sensors, which use laser light to detect objects ahead of and around a vehicle. They are currently used in the auto industry, and are an important component of many self-driving systems. Luminar recently lined up supply deals with partners including Volvo Cars, Daimler Trucks and China’s SAIC Motor. Lidar, an acronym for light detection and ranging, adds a critical layer of safety to vision systems such as camera and radar by creating 3D “point cloud” maps by bouncing laser beams off surrounding objects. The technology is vital to most developers of autonomous vehicle technology.

This will be Luminar’s first venture outside the world of autonomous vehicles. The company said that with Airbus it will work on enhancing aircraft sensing and perception, and that its technology could also substantially improve the safety of existing aircraft. The companies said their collaboration is part of the Airbus Flightlab ecosystem that was created in January, with flight tests serving as the main way to evaluate new technologies within Airbus.

Like many other technologies, the initial costs of lidar meant it could only be used in extremely limited types of vehicle, with early prices reaching $75,000. Luminar’s Iris lidar systems will cost less than $1,000 per unit for production vehicles or $500 for a cut-down version. Airbus is a leader in the aerospace industry, as well as having an interest in small, battery-powered air taxis commonly referred to as “urban air mobility”. These small helicopters have electric powertrains and can be used for short flights within cities. Luminar’s technology may be especially helpful for aircraft to avoid overhead utility lines and objects during take-off and landing.

It is worth noting that truly autonomous vehicles are unlikely to hit the road before the end of the decade. Five years ago, we predicted their slow progress from research projects to commonplace products. Building a vehicle that can complete a journey safely and legally without human input remains a big challenge. Luminar went public recently and is looking into other markets. For this young company that has reinvented lidar with its Iris technology, its partnership with Airbus is a move in the right direction.