Argo AI, which received a $1-billion cash injection from Ford Motor Company earlier in the year, has acquired a New Jersey-based LiDAR company called Princeton Lightwave for an undisclosed amount. This is not Ford’s first investment into LiDAR technology; in August, 2016, the automaker invested $75 million into Silicon Valley-based Velodyne LiDAR.
LiDAR, or Light Detection And Ranging, is seen as a critical technology in the development of fully-autonomous, self-driving cars. LiDAR sensors scan their surrounding environments by sending out laser pulses and measuring the reflections. Ford’s Fusion sedan-based autonomous test vehicles use numerous LiDAR sensors, in conjunction with RADAR and cameras.
“Velodyne remains instrumental to Ford/Argo’s success in the near term as we need their sensors for our testing and development purposes, as well as in the longer term with the potential for being our source for high volume production,” says Ford spokesperson Alan Hall.
But what sets Princeton Lightwave’s LiDAR system apart from those of most other companies is its use of a Geiger-mode avalanche photodiode (APD) to detect reflected light, versus a typical linear-mode APD. The latter sort requires a minimum of 500 to 1,000 photons to register a given point in the complete three-dimensional image. The Geiger-mode APD, meanwhile, “can be sensitive enough to detect a single photon,” says Argo AI CEO Bryan Salesky.
The result is that the Geiger-mode photodiode can enable the use of more-frequent, lower-energy laser pulses, giving the LiDAR sensor a range that is several times longer than those with linear-mode APDs. That allows the autonomous vehicle to see much farther, rendering it better-prepared for what lies ahead, and more able to operate at higher speeds.