Pioneer harnessing laserdisc tech for low-cost LIDAR

The company envisions LIDARs under US$83, which could boost the spread of self-driving cars.

Using know-how gained by making laserdiscs of yesteryear, Pioneer is developing a 3D LIDAR (light detection and ranging) sensor that could be a fraction of the cost of current systems.

The company sees technology related to optical pickups once used in laserdisc players, which it made for 30 years until 2009, as key to a compact LIDAR system that could cost less than ¥10,000 (US$83) by 2025.

With some LIDAR sensors now costing tens of thousands of dollars, that would speed the spread of autonomous vehicles such as self-driving passenger cars and smart golf carts that could be used as a shared public transportation system. Such robotic cars use LIDAR to navigate and avoid obstacles.

With small LIDAR units mounted on the four corners of a car, for instance, the system could gather data for road outline maps, including features such as lane markings and crosswalks. It would also gather information to create detailed 3D point cloud maps of the area around the vehicle.

The system would detect objects dozens of meters ahead, measure their distance and width and identify them based on their shape.

Pioneer, which makes GPS navigation systems, is working on getting the LIDAR to automatically produce high-precision digital maps while using a minimum of data compared to the amount used for standard maps for car navigation.

There are similarities in manufacturing techniques for optical pickups and LIDAR systems, a Pioneer spokesman said, adding the company is using its know-how in signal processing, chip development and optical module manufacturing for the LIDAR technology.

Pioneer has created test units of its LIDAR system and will examine them in vehicle trials, with commercialization for business-use vehicles in 2017 and private passenger cars around 2018.

The sensors could be useful to companies such as Google that are developing self-driving cars, and need low-cost LIDAR to make them commercially viable. Google has previously experimented with robot cars equipped with $80,000 Velodyne roof-mounted LIDAR systems.

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