Velodyne develops real-time 3D Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) computing and software platforms. Continuing just-auto/QUBE's series of interviews this week at CES, we spoke to Anand Gopalan, Chief Technology Officer at Velodyne Lidar bout the company's innovations. 

Last month, Velodyne revealed Nikon Corp as a new strategic investor with an investment of $25 million. The parties further announced they have begun discussions for a multifaceted business alliance. Nikon is one of the world's leading suppliers of products and solutions based on advanced opto-electronics and precision technologies. Velodyne believes the relationship will advance the timeline for manufacturing and mass production of Lidar for the autonomous and advanced safety global market. The companies share a vision of advanced perception technology for a wide range of applications including robotics, mapping, security, shuttles, drones, and safety on roadways.

Lidar is an acronym for "light detection and ranging." It is also sometimes called "laser scanning" or "3D scanning." The technology uses eye-safe laser beams to create a 3D representation of the surveyed environment. Lidar is used in a number of industries, including automotive, trucking, UAV/drones, industrial and mapping. A typical Lidar sensor emits pulsed light waves from a laser into the environment. These pulses bounce off surrounding objects and return to the sensor. The sensor uses the time it took for each pulse to return to the sensor to calculate the distance it travelled. Repeating this process millions of times per second creates a real-time 3D map of the environment. An onboard computer can utilise this 3D map of the surrounding environment for navigation.

Could you tell us a little more about Velodyne?

Velodyne is known worldwide for its portfolio of breakthrough Lidar sensor technologies. In 2005, Velodyne's Founder and CEO, David Hall, invented real-time surround view Lidar systems, revolutionising perception and autonomy for automotive, new mobility, mapping, robotics, and security. Velodyne's high-performance product line includes a broad range of sensing solutions, including the cost-effective Puck™, the versatile Ultra Puck™, the perfect for L4-L5 autonomy Alpha Puck™, and the directional view Velarray™.

What is the headline message you are putting out here at the CES?

Velodyne provides the smartest, most powerful Lidar solution for autonomy and driver assistance.

Achieving the performance standards necessary for SAE Levels 4 – 5 driver autonomy at lower costs requires a fresh approach. What's yours?

True autonomous driving requires sensor systems that perceive a 360-degree field of view with precision and at a far distance. Velodyne's Alpha Puck is the most advanced Lidar sensor on the market for autonomous vehicles and solves, for the first time, use cases in urban environments and at highway speeds and provides for advanced vehicle safety.  It has the range, resolution and accuracy required by advanced AV programmes.  A new manufacturing process and materials were developed in conjunction with the Alpha Puck.  These allow precision, high-volume manufacturing that provides for auto manufacturing grade pricing.

We hear that spinning Lidars cost more than solid-state Lidars. Could you give us an idea how much your solid-state Lidar units will cost (a range) in mass production and how costs could fall in the coming years?  Also, what is the power consumption of your solutions?

Velodyne offers a full array of competitively-priced Lidar sensors for driver assistance, autonomy and many other uses.  Most importantly, cost is directly related to producing sensors at higher volumes to achieve electronics materials discounts and manufacturing efficiency.  Our mega-factory has this capability and we can meet our customers' volume and performance requirements.

Also, spinning Lidar have a solid-state assembly.  This assembly is put on a rotating device that allows for the maximum re-use, eliminating the need of using multiple sensors to achieve the needed performance.  In theory, a spinning Lidar will be less expensive to provide the same field of view as a bunch of solid state Lidars.

Our Alpha Puck makes a quantum leap in performance over competitors.  The nearest competitor's Lidar sensor uses three times more power than the Alpha Puck and Alpha Puck has at least five times the performance.

Lidar is said to be the most important of the sensor suite that enables the different levels of driver autonomy. Yet one of the challenges for manufacturers with this type of sensor, in particular, is to find reliability and robustness along with economic viability.  How does your solution address this?

Velodyne has achieved the balance between building Lidar that is both high-performance and is manufacturable at scale.  We achieve this by simultaneously developing the Lidar sensor and its manufacturing process.  This is what makes Velodyne different.  We have our own manufacturing processes and factory.  We believe the only way to deliver high-performance and cost-effective Lidar can is to co-develop the product and the manufacturing processes.

We hear that today's mechanical scanning Lidars are vulnerable to shocks, vibration and degradation. How does your solid-state Lidar technology solution compare?

We believe that both mechanical and solid state Lidar can be made equally reliable for automotive applications and have developed automotive grade mechanical Lidar.  Durable mechanical parts are not new as autos already have mechanical parts that last for a very long time. Velodyne also has solid state Lidar that have frictionless beam steering mechanisms and offer practically an infinite lifetime. 

Long term, I guess a new generation of single-chip Lidars could simplify production and result in price completion. How do you see the market place evolving? 

In the coming years, we will see tighter integration of Lidar sensors and the usage of Lidar on chips, but chips alone will not provide a comprehensive solution.

Automotive applications have many different requirements and use cases for Lidar and these cannot all be met with a single chip Lidar.  Wide fields of view and long ranges are required.  It is practically impossible to meet these requirements with a single chip.  In the coming years, we will see new sensor solutions that serve different applications.  We will see tighter integration of Lidar sensors and the usage of Lidar on chips, but chips alone will not provide a comprehensive solution.

I guess developing Lidar for autonomous vehicles is just the first step for Velodyne. What other sector opportunities for Lidar technologies are you looking at?

Velodyne's Lidar sensor solutions have already been used across a variety of applications.  Our products are being used on many of the trucking programmes around the world today.  They provide multiple safety benefits and enhance the driver experience as well as improve fleet management and productivity. Our Lidar are also used for mapping and have helped transform mobile mapping.  Industrial uses, robotics and security are other important and growing sectors for Velodyne.

What's next for Velodyne?

Velodyne continues to innovate and extend our leadership in the Lidar industry.  Some of the areas of innovation coming up will be additional Lidar sensors that provide enhanced safety for drivers assistance and autonomy applications and software that offers superior processing and integration of Lidar data.