In it’s most basic form, LIDAR is used to measure distance in one dimension. A laser beam is shot from the LIDAR module, and the returned reflection is measured to calculate the distance of the target. If you want to measure distances in two dimensions, you can sweep the laser back and forth. To measure all three dimensions, you have to sweep it back and forth while you rotate the module. But that needs to be done quickly and precisely to be useful in autonomous vehicles and other common applications, and results in a bulky LIDAR unit. This new LIDAR chip, however, is smaller than the nail on your little finger.
Most self-driving cars use three-dimensional LIDAR to scan the environment around them. You may have seen one of those LIDAR units yourself, which look like large spinning cylinders on top of the car. But for aesthetic, financial, and reliability reasons, LIDAR needs to be much smaller to see widespread use. In order to accomplish that, Voyant Photonics is ditching the mechanical movement altogether. Instead, they’re using silicon photonics to sweep the laser without using mechanical parts at all.
Silicon photonics is the study and use of light in silicon. It’s still a relatively new field, and most research is going into the use light on chips in place of conventional electrical connections. In this case, Voyant Photonics is using silicon photonics “optical phased arrays” to direct the laser beam across the scene without moving parts. The result is a LIDAR chip that is orders of magnitude smaller than existing modules. That not only makes ideal for inconspicuous use in the automotive industry, but also for use in robotics and other small-scale applications. Voyant Photonics has raised $4.3 million dollars in its first round of funding to pursue this research further.