New "Weather-Proof" Beam-Steering Chip Could Lead to LIDAR with No Moving Parts or Blind Spots

The new chip could mean LIDAR sensors no longer need moving parts, and is being positioned for future wireless communication systems too.

Gareth Halfacree
15 days agoSensors / Communication

Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin have developed a device which, they claim, can offer optical communications and sensing come rain or shine — and they're hoping the technology will power the next generation of autonomous vehicles.

The heart of the new system is an indium-phosphide chip which is designed to allow for optical beam-steering, the redirection of light, in order to reduce interference, save power, and improve accuracy. While in-chip beam-steering isn't new, previous approaches have offered limited angles — where the new version offers around a 30 degree improvement.

That improvement is key, claims Professor Ray Chen, to using the chip for functions such as light direction and ranging (LIDAR) sensors. ""For beam steering to be safe," he says, "you want to have a full view, you don't want to have a bunch of blind spots."

Where the current approach to solving the blind-spot problem has the LIDAR sensor spinning, Chen claims his team's device can achieve the same without any moving parts — improving reliability. At the same time, Chen positions the part as being weather-resistant — operating in the mid-infrared spectrum in order to penetrate clouds, fog, rain, and other atmospherics without losing signal integrity. "Low light loss means signal can travel further," Chen says, "and through the Earth's atmosphere, with better integrity and less power consumption."

The team has positioned the part as perfect for everything from LIDAR systems to high-speed wireless communication, and is currently working on adding artificial intelligence for on-device environmental sensing applications.

The team's work has been published under open-access terms in the journal Optica.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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