Why is 3D Flash LIDAR a Key Technology for Automated Driving?
The technology in use for space applications including asteroid sample return and rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) is now supporting automated vehicles in complex traffic situations.
To many, the notion of automated driving still seems like science fiction. Yet all over the world, systems for self-driving cars are being developed and tested right now and could be available to consumers within a few years' time. One of the most promising technologies in this area is the High-Resolution 3D Flash LIDAR™, which represents a major improvement in how image and range information are captured. But how does it work?
How 3D Flash LIDAR Works
Although 3D Flash LIDAR devices might bring to mind traditional radar technologies, their functionality is far more advanced. LiDAR – a term blending "light and "radar" - employs lasers to measure distances to a target by using the time-of-flight of a laser pulse(s), while radar uses microwaves. Roughly speaking, the difference is between writing with a lump of coal or a very fine pen.
In 3D Flash LIDAR, a single laser pulse per frame of data delivers range data and black-and-white video back to the LiDAR sensor, where they are captured by a focal plane array of smart pixels. While a synchronized 2D sensor can tell whether a traffic light is green or red, 3D Flash LIDAR can provide an accurate image of the traffic light in 3D and show how far away it is. The synergy of these two technologies makes the system even more robust and reliable.
3D Flash LIDAR provides much finer optical angle resolution and greater precision than any radar system…especially in dense urban environments with parked or moving vehicles, buildings and other structures of any size – including people. The laser pulse emitted by 3D Flash LIDAR is outside the visible light wavelength and completely Class 1 eye-safe.
Tried And Tested In Space
A previous generation of 3D Flash LIDAR technology was used to execute automated rendezvous and berthing procedures to the International Space Station (ISS). In September 2016, NASA launched the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to travel to a near-Earth asteroid called Bennu, a sample-return mission. Upon its scheduled arrival in 2018, one way communication between the spacecraft and Earth will take over 10 minutes, making it impossible to remotely control the vehicle’s safe “touch & go” with the asteroid.
The on-board 3D Flash LIDAR sensor is crucial to the mission's success by enabling an automated landing, facilitating bringing a small sample back to Earth for study.
Continental has been testing 3D Flash LIDAR in close cooperation with automobile companies for several years now, steadily building a consensus that these emerging technologies will change and shape automated driving in the near future. The goal is to make driverless vehicles be able to see better than a human being, ensuring a level of safe driving superior to that of any human - which, come to think of it, doesn't sound much like science fiction at all.