General Motors announced on Monday that it had acquired Strobe Inc., a small California startup that has been developing a sub-$100 solid-state lidar for self-driving cars.
The terms of the deal were not announced but, given that Strobe was seeking only US $15 million in a funding round as recently as May, it is unlikely to be anywhere near the reported $680 million Uber paid for some of Waymo’s lidar team as part of its ill-fated Otto purchase.
Strobe looks to be a much better deal all around. The 12-person company is only three years old, and uses innovative frequency-modulated lidar technology first invented by its founder, Lute Maleki, at his previous firm called OEwaves.
Today’s commercial lidars, such as those sold by Velodyne and Quanergy, are time-of-flight systems. These calculate distance by measuring the tiny delay between the emission of a laser pulse and the reception of its echo. Time-of-flight lidars have a number of drawbacks. It is difficult to measure extremely short periods of time, which in turn limits their spatial accuracy. They also require very sensitive photodetectors and are susceptible to interference from the sun and other sources of light.
Instead, Strobe’s prototypes produce brief “chirps” of frequency-modulated (FM) laser light, where the frequency within each chirp varies linearly. Measuring the phase and frequency of the echoing chirp allows the system to directly measure both the distance and the velocity of objects in the road ahead. That reduces the computational load on the brains of an automated vehicle, enabling it to make faster decisions.
FM lidars are also relatively immune to interference and do not need especially sensitive photodetectors. However, producing high-quality chirps, with a good range of accurate frequencies that vary smoothly, has been tricky until now. Maleki’s advance was to use a so-called “whispering gallery mode” optical resonator to reduce the laser’s linewidth and generate a far more precise signal.
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