LiDAR started as a portmanteau of the terms ‘light’ and ‘radar’, and now is an acronym for ‘Light Detection and Ranging’.
LiDAR started as a portmanteau of the terms ‘light’ and ‘radar’, and now is an acronym for ‘Light Detection and Ranging’.
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Sensor technology What is LiDAR and What Does It Mean for Mobility?

Author / Editor: Jason Unrau / Nicole Kareta

Originally used in the 70’s by weather stations and the Apollo 15 space mission, LiDAR is a technology that has been around for decades. Its uses have changes significantly over time, and mobility is an industry that currently makes use of LiDAR. What is this technology all about, and how is it applicable?

LiDAR is used more than you’re aware of. The 4th-gen iPad Pro has a LiDAR scanner for 3D systems and it’s used for topographical maps among many other things. But LiDAR systems are increasingly found in automotive and transportation systems. This sophisticated technology has wide-ranging applications designed primarily to make mobility safer and more convenient.

How LiDAR works

LiDAR started as a portmanteau of the terms ‘light’ and ‘radar’, and now is an acronym for ‘Light Detection and Ranging’. A light emits from a laser rapidly with the purpose to reflect off objects and return to the LiDAR sensor where the results are recorded. Think of it like a strobe effect that’s faster than your eye can recognize.

The time it takes to return to the sensor is used to calculate the distance travelled. And with such rapid pulses, it’s used to ‘map’ anything in its path. Currently LiDAR can map over 1 million points per second to within 5mm accuracy. Essentially, the result is a moving digital 3D model.

History of LiDAR

Laser-based sensing became a focus for NADA in the 1970s with the aim to gauge oceans, atmosphere, ice sheets, and forest canopies for the purpose of topographical mapping. Its development was hindered further until reliable GPS technology came to market. With GPS technology much more accurate than even a few years ago, LiDAR’s potential is just starting to be unlocked.

Real-world applications of LiDAR in mobility

LiDAR has its roots in geosciences, and its application will continue to grow in this way. Even popular drone developer DJI is partnering with a LiDAR manufacturer make their flying drones more capable. The applications in mobility take a more safety-centric approach.

Autonomous cars

At first, LiDAR tech was too expensive for practical use in any automotive sense at around $75,000 per unit. Today, cost-effective LiDAR units are just a couple hundred dollars and could be the tech that makes autonomous cars affordable and practical.

LiDAR sensors can reliably map all around a vehicle to ensure safe driving circumstances. Assuming the vehicle can process the information fast enough, an autonomous car could detect and react to any situation around it to make intelligent navigation decisions.

Driverless fleets

Just like autonomous cars, self-driving fleets of delivery vehicles and car sharing services will benefit from LiDAR technology. And when fleets can become driverless, it enables companies to become productive 24 hours a day rather than being limited by the physical capacity of a driver. It could significantly impact delivery times in a positive way.

Driver-assistive technologies

LiDAR also has safety implications in human-driven vehicles. Current driver-assist systems like pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control rely heavily on radar sensors and cameras that view circumstances in two dimensions, not 3D. That imposes limitations on what speed it can function as well as the height or size of the obstacle it can detect.