MicroLiDAR: why it might be the key to improving drone sense-and-avoid

Drones are getting smaller — and the LiDAR sensors to go with them are getting smaller too. One American drone company has claimed to have built the smallest, lightest scanning LiDAR sensor, called MicroLiDAR. 

LightWare LiDAR this summer launched its new SF45 microLiDAR. The sensor weighs just 59 grams and measuring just 51mm x 48mm x 44mm.

The LiDAR sensor is being marketed as a sort of sense-and-avoid solution on drones. In general, LiDAR is not currently being used as a mainstream way to detect obstacles around most drones. In the drone industry, LiDAR is primarily contained to high-level applications such as mapping and surveying, where data must be down to millimeter-level accuracy.

But the team at LightWare said it should one more drones beyond the high-end mapping or survey drones. The key to enabling it is making LiDAR sensors small enough that it would be reasonable to place those units on drones.

“Until the advent of microLiDAR sensors from LightWare, LiDAR had not been seriously considered a mass-market ‘sense and avoid’ solution on UAVs because it was too heavy, too big, and too expensive, and the data processing was too complex,” according to a statement from LightWare.

Here’s how the SF45 microLiDAR works: The unit must be mounted with either a vertical or horizontal field of vision ranging from 0.2m to 50m, adjustable from just a few degrees up to 320°, to the drone. Once flying, LiDAR creates millions of data points to “see” objects. That data is processed on-board, so no dedicated processors are required, which LightWare says helps save on costs and power. And that quick data processing enables the drone to navigate and detect obstacles in real-time, which theoretically should reduce the possibility of accidents.

“The SF45 democratizes machine perception, bringing vision, safety, and practicality to even the smallest unmanned systems,” said Philip Constantine, CEO of LightWare LiDAR in a prepared statement. “Autonomous machines don’t have 3D depth perception, so they can’t make sense of unexpected features. Our sensors give them eyes that can even see around corners.”

Besides obstacle detection, LiDAR does have other significant use cases. LightWare’s microLiDAR can be used for applications where it’s otherwise tough for the drone to see including drone deliveries and terrain following, and navigating through complex environments such as into volcanoes.

While this might be the first time you’ve heard of the SF45 microLiDAR sensor, it’s not exactly the new kid on the block. The tech won first place in the 2020 global AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems) Xcellence Awards in the Hardware Component category. LightWare’s invetors include private equity firm Sanari Capital.

And more companies are looking to get (or give) investment dollars toward LiDAR. For example,  DJI got into LiDAR through investing in Livox, an independent, sensor-technology company. Livox’s LiDAR sensors, the Horizon and Tele-15, can deliver better sensing performance at a fraction of the cost of traditional LiDAR units, and one of them costs less than $1,000.

According to DroneDeploy, the global LiDAR market is currently valued at $1.1 billion (as of 2019), and is projected to reach $2.8 billion by 2025 and $3.21 billion by 2027. That’s a 34% increase in market size over an eight-year span.

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