The latest version of your mobile phone camera has light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology that takes better photos than ever before. These frequency-modulated continuous-wave (FMCW) cameras use laser light pulses invisible to the human eye that measure the depth in a scene, map the surroundings and create 3-dimensional (3D) images of what is in front and around them.
But LiDAR technology has a much bigger job: it helps self-driving vehicles "see" using a laser, a scanner, a specialized GPS receiver and signal processor. Low-noise lasers enable LiDAR to give cars a real-time understanding of where they are in a 3D space. Their sensors help vehicles avoid obstacles and make critical decisions en route.
"The autonomous vehicle is one of the most vital inventions of this century—and LiDAR is one of the key enablers," says Dr. Velko Tzolov, Director General, Advanced Electronics and Photonics, National Research Council of Canada (NRC). "In addition to automotive uses, the technology has aerospace, defence, mining and other remote sensing applications, so the world's reliance on this navigational mainstay will grow exponentially." According to Allied Market Research, the global automotive LiDAR market alone is expected to garner $1.83 billion by 2028. In 2020, it was worth $221.7 million.
Today's LiDAR systems, however, have a long way to go before they can take the driver's seat in autonomous vehicles. Because the instruments have moving parts, their operation is affected by temperature fluctuations, humidity, fog and other elements, as well as vehicle vibrations. Their range is also limited so vehicle processors do not have time to accurately manage all information. And their cost can be prohibitive.
The good news is that the NRC, in partnership with Québec-based laser chip developer TeraXion, an indie Semiconductor company, is accelerating the technology by combining LiDAR components with photonic integration for greatly improved range and cost effectiveness. "We have created a device with best-in-class performance, customized for the LiDAR application space, that does not require costly, complex components to optimize the signal," says the NRC's Michael Davison, Client Relationship Leader, NRC Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre. "All this functionality fits into a long-lasting, solid-state laser chip that is smaller than a fingernail."
indie Semiconductor has recently pledged investments that will not only ensure TeraXion remains a critical Canadian R&D driver in photonics, but also enable it to expand within Canada. While the multinational solutions provider for advanced autonomous vehicles and advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) is based in the U.S., their investment in Canada will continue pushing scientific boundaries with the NRC as a key partner.
Laser-sharp self-driving technology
Lasers are integral to any LiDAR system—and suppliers offer many choices. As the self-driving vehicle market picks up speed, original equipment manufacturers and Tier 1 customers increasingly want high-performance, low-cost solutions that will enhance safety.
In this high-stakes setting, TeraXion's unique laser technology is a top choice for the emerging market of FMCW LiDAR solutions. indie's solution will leverage TeraXion's laser technology to deliver a tenfold improvement in system performance and cost.
"The NRC's renowned expertise in laser technology enabled us to develop this ultra-high-performance, extremely low-noise laser chip," says Ghislain Lafrance, TeraXion's President and CEO. "The National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) has also been supporting our efforts to innovate and grow through advisory services and R&D project funding."
By combining their specialties in photonics, lasers and sensing technology, the NRC and TeraXion crafted a large demonstrator in Quebec City that validated the ground-breaking research. With additional collaboration from global giants, such as German auto parts manufacturer Bosch and systems integrator Honeywell International, they reduced the prototype to a miniaturized, on-chip, narrow-linewidth laser with best-in-class performance that outpaced industry-standard products.
"In only 3 years, we made incredible progress toward this achievement, and created joint patents to protect our respective intellectual capital," adds Davison. "When TeraXion published these successes and presented them at the global 2020 Photonics West conference, they attracted extraordinary interest from various markets, most notably LiDAR for autonomous vehicle applications and ADAS."
That attention led to an offer TeraXion couldn't refuse: a US$159 million buyout by indie Semiconductor. "This forward-thinking step combines indie's mixed-signal, DSP, software and power management experience with our laser and sensing technologies," says Lafrance. "Together we can create unparalleled solutions for advanced driver-assisted systems and autonomous driving, as well as adjacent high-reliability applications."
TeraXion and the NRC plan to continue advancing the technology to ensure that market needs are met for effective new product introduction. This includes refining the design for manufacturing, ensuring the product's reliability and proving scalability— big step toward mass deployment of self-driving cars.
Accelerating LiDAR in Canada and beyond
As a result of the acquisition by indie, TeraXion will not only have access to a broader set of technologies, but also benefit from access to capital markets financing and indie's global supply chain. Based in Quebec City—an internationally acclaimed photonics hub—the company will serve as indie's global headquarters for photonics R&D and manufacturing. TeraXion already maintains an extensive network of resources across Canada in addition to local capabilities. These include highly-qualified personnel at the University of Laval's Centre for Optics, Photonics and Lasers (COPL) and the Institut national d'optique (INO).
Dr. Tzolov adds that the venture creates opportunities for not only TeraXion, but also for Canada and the NRC. "By accelerating and scaling up production, TeraXion will be able to expand their operations in Quebec and contribute to the photonics ecosystem across Canada," he says. "That translates into job creation, manufacturing expansion and economic growth."
The NRC's role in helping small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) such as TeraXion is a cohesive, holistic approach that covers all angles of development with a view to expediting clients' success. For TeraXion, the NRC's Advanced Electronics and Photonics Research Centre offered an advanced materials research group where designers and materials experts provided modelling, new structure designs and other R&D support. The Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre is developing technology for process, prototyping and small-scale production for scalability. And NRC IRAP has been providing business advice, funding and connections to the domestic and international ecosystems.
"As technology advances and finds volume commercial applications, our NRC experts will be working on next-generation products to help TeraXion stay competitive,"
A great collaboration paving the road to the future.