Radar has been used very successfully for many decades and will continue to be invaluable, but now we have an additional tool coming up on the horizon that will allow us to further extend our ability to sense things in this world. Until now, LIDAR has been restricted to applications that are large and expensive (like specialized surveying equipment) or smaller and simpler (like speed detection devices used by law enforcement).
A high performance LIDAR system must meet certain criteria. The transmitting portion, for example, needs to pulse the laser for 3 ns to 5 ns at a peak of 40 A to 80 A to make it attractive for automotive—laser drivers are finally approaching these metrics of interest, making this portion of LIDAR a reality. Other factors include small and efficient power management, integration of subsystems, inexpensive high speed data processing, and sophisticated software to make sense of all this data. Our ability to push LIDAR systems’ performance up and power budget down is nearing the point where they make sense to use in many applications where they simply could not meet demands previously. Due to this approaching critical mass, the collective effort in driving down the cost, size, and power needs while increasing performance is accelerating the attraction to this solution.
Like the microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) revolution of the 1990s, LIDAR today is becoming smaller, cheaper, and more versatile. Both LIDAR and MEMS took a long time to fully realize their potentials to other systems and subsystems. MEMS, while developed in the 1950s, was never a practical option to integrate into many systems due to its cost, size, power needs, and performance. It was not until process technology in the 1990s was mature enough to match demand to allow proliferation of MEMS into applications never dreamed of before. Similarly, LIDAR (developed in the early 1960s) is only now ready to meet similar demands.
What is currently changing is the confluence of factors that goes into the design and manufacture of a high performance LIDAR system. These additional factors have helped LIDAR meet the constraints inherent in it, such as driving down cost, solving size and power issues, and increasing overall performance. Because these factors have helped LIDAR technology with enhanced performance while decreasing development costs, it makes sense to begin pursuit of other areas for LIDAR application.