DARPA scheme would let high-tech systems “see” as never before

LIDAR program could create myriad new applications for drones, robots and other high-tech systems


Researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency want to build extremely small light detection and ranging (LIDAR) systems -- which use light to image objects and their motions like RADAR systems use radio waves – to enable a host of new applications that would let high-tech systems “see” as they never have before.

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According to DARPA, a LIDAR system beams light out and then precisely monitors the timing of reflections back to map and track objects within its detection range. Unlike a camera that captures a two-dimensional rendition of three-dimensional scenes, a LIDAR system essentially captures full-fledged three-dimensional reality. The basic technology already is out there—LIDAR allowed many robots at the DARPA Robotics Challenge to “see” and it enables autonomous vehicles to sense obstacles in their surroundings, for example—but those systems are too big, heavy and expensive for widespread use, the agency stated.

That’s where a new program called Modular Optical Aperture Building Blocks (MOABB) comes in.

“To get a sense of the technology challenge MOABB poses, picture stripping a telescope of its lenses, mirrors and the interior space in which images come into focus. Jettison the mechanical parts, too, including the dials, gears and motors for focusing and steering the instrument. Now reconstitute all of the light-gathering and imaging roles these parts play in conventional telescopes in an array of 10,000 light-emitting and light–detecting semiconductor dots distributed on a disk about the size of a DVD. The result: performance equivalent to or better than today’s LIDARS that rely on bulky, telescope-like detectors,” DARPA program manager Joshua Conway said in a statement.

One of the most coveted applications that could emerge from the envisioned program is foliage-penetrating imagers for spotting hidden threats—a breakthrough that could revolutionize situational awareness in contested areas, DARPA said.

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Other potential applications include:

  • Collision avoidance systems for small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) maneuvering in tight indoor spaces,
  • Precision motor control for robotic limbs and fingers,
  • High-capacity light-based communications and data-transfer systems
  • Sophisticated gaming or training modules in which LIDARs would open up new worlds of immersive experience just as GPS and motion-sensing accelerometers have done in today’s systems

“Every machine that interacts with the 3D world—whether it is a manufacturing robot, UAV, car, or smartphone—could have a chip- or wafer-scale LIDAR on it,” Conway said.

The first phase of the five-year, potentially $58 million program calls for researchers to develop the fundamental devices that will underlie the new LIDAR concept: speck-sized light-emitting and light-detecting cells capable of being readily integrated into larger arrays using typical semiconductor manufacturing processes. Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the project call for the integration of these cells into a 1-cm2 array and a 10-cm2 array comprising upwards of 100 and 10,000 unit cells, respectively.

For more information on MOABB go here.

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