As automakers, tech companies and startups continue to develop self-driving vehicles, the importance of lidar technology to support perception systems for autonomous vehicles has grown.
Silicon Valley-based lidar company Velodyne Lidar Inc. was one of the first companies to supply lidar to developers of autonomous vehicles and today the company announced it will supply its lidar to China’s Baidu, a company that’s often referred to as the “Google of China.”
Velodyne announced a three-year sales agreement with Baidu for its Alpha Prime lidar sensors for autonomous driving applications. The Alpha Prime sensor can help autonomous vehicles navigate at highway speeds.
Baidu is launching a robo taxi service in China called “Apollo Go” as part of its Apollo open-source autonomous driving platform. The fleet of self-driving vehicles will use the lidar sensors from Velodyne.
Baidu Apollo said it selected the Alpha Prime lidar for its range, resolution and field of view that collectively address the high-performance requirements for Baidu’s autonomous vehicles.
“Velodyne greatly values our relationship with Baidu, a strategic business partner and investor, and we are deeply committed to our combined work in the Chinese market,” said Wei Weng, Executive Director of Asia, Velodyne Lidar. “They are a trailblazer of intelligent driving technology and deployment, and their accomplishments and influence span global markets. Alpha Prime provides safe, efficient navigation for autonomous vehicles.”
The name Lidar is an acronym for “light detecting and ranging.” The technology works by bouncing pulses of laser light off of objects millions of times per second and measuring the time its takes for the beams to reflect back to the sensor. By measuring time-of-flight, distance of objects can be measured.
The laser technology also works well in rain, snow and low light conditions, unlike camera-based perception systems that rely on cameras as the primary sensor.
Velodyne’s Alpha Prime lidar uses 128 laser channels and can generate millions of data points per second, enabling precise navigation. It utilizes Velodyne’s 360-degree surround-view perception technology.
The data points are used to continuously generate a precise, three-dimensional lidar image of a vehicle’s surroundings in real time. The lidar sensor can be used to identify other vehicles, buildings, trees, pedestrians, mailboxes, as well as the road ahead.
Outside of autonomous vehicles, the lidar market is rapidly growing for use in advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) designed to reduce accidents and pedestrian deaths. ADAS features are standard on many new vehicles today and are considered to be a precursor to fully-automated driving systems. The 3D vision capabilities of lidar make it an important sensor to help drivers detect roadway hazards and increase safety.
Baidu has been a strategic investor in Velodyne since 2016. U.S. automaker Ford Motor Co is also an investor. The two companies each invested $75 million in Velodyne.
“In fulfilling our intelligent driving mission, Baidu works with innovation leaders like Velodyne to bring a safe, efficient autonomous driving experience to everyone,” said Yaoming Shen, Sr. Optical Engineer, Baidu.
San Jose, California-based Velodyne is one of the pioneers of lidar technology. When Google began working on self-driving cars way back in 2009, Velodyne was chosen as its lidar supplier. The project has since spun off as a separate division now known as Waymo.
At the time, Velodyne’s lidar units were bulky mechanical devices, which spun to send out laser beams in all directions for complete 360 degree coverage around a vehicle. The units resembled a spinning bucket mounted on the roof of Google’s first self-driving vehicles.
However, Velodyne’s newest lidar units as well as those of its competitors are much smaller and some even include more advanced solid state lidar technology, with no moving parts. These newer designs are much more reliable and less expensive for use in automotive ADAS and other industries.
As the inventor of lidar 15 years ago, Velodyne has over 300 customers, including major automotive OEMs and leading tech companies developing perception technologies for self-driving vehicles, autonomous shuttles and ADAS, including lidar units for autonomous delivery vehicles designed to carry goods rather than people.
Velodyne has worked with roughly 25 self-driving car programs. Lidar is also being used for robotics, drones, mapping and security systems.