Software-definable LiDAR improves safety and reduces vehicle costs

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The latest generation of cars integrate an increasing number of advanced features aimed at improving vehicle safety and enabling more efficient and comfortable driving. Solutions such as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) or different levels of autonomous driving (LiDAR) are now available in many vehicles and require advanced sensors with a high level of accuracy and a competitive price.

Among these, LiDAR is an essential sensor to detect – within a maximum operating range – everything outside the vehicle. By getting an accurate real-time map of the scenario of interest, LiDAR allows you to identify objects or obstacles in the immediate vicinity of the vehicle. This can help the vehicle avoid possible collisions with other vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians or animals.

LiDARs, which depending on the model can have electromechanical moving parts or be made entirely of solid bodies, are notoriously one of the most expensive on-board sensors integrated into vehicles. In this article we present a LiDAR sensor with a particularly competitive cost (an order of magnitude lower than traditional devices), characterized by high accuracy and a customizable software component that can expand the possible number of applications.

Flash LiDAR by PreAct

PreAct Technologies was founded in 2018 with the aim of developing collision detection systems for the automotive market, drawing on a long history in the defense industry and the development of high-speed sensors and edge processing for active protection systems through its parent company. In 2019, the company began working with multiple OEMs and Tier Ones on ADAS and pre-crash applications.

PreAct has not limited itself to the development of a single sensor, but has created a complete hardware and software solution capable of meeting the needs of numerous applications in the automotive industry and beyond. The fully solid LiDAR is a flash sensor that illuminates the entire scene with each “flash” – unlike more traditional LiDARs that use a laser to scan a scene line by line.

“We have developed a near-field flash LiDAR, but we see ourselves as a software company rather than a hardware company,” said Paul Drysch, Founder and CEO of PreAct Technologies. “Rather than focusing on manufacturing, our business model is to license our LiDAR reference design at a loss, maybe even for free. We then offer control and application software as a service that continuously improves the value proposition for our customers.”

PreAct is currently negotiating deals with Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers in Europe and the US to produce these units and sell them through their commercial channels along with the necessary software licenses. The sensor, named TrueSense, is shown in Figure 1. It is a fast, low-cost, accurate, and reliable continuous-wave time-of-flight flash LiDAR that uses the indirect time-of-flight (iTOF) principle to measure the distance of each sensor pixel simultaneously.

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Figure 1: The TrueSense LiDAR unit (Source: PreAct Technologies) (click on image to enlarge)

“It is our software that allows us to work outside in harsh environmental conditions. That’s because we’ve made some breakthroughs in reducing the noise floor and stabilizing the 3D point cloud that allows iTOF to work outside of the booth,” said Kurt Brendley, Founder and COO of PreAct Technologies. “We will continue to reduce form factor and cost as we transition from an FPGA-based product to a programmable system-on-a-chip that will continue to support our Software-as-a-Service business model.”

Today, near-field detection (up to 25 meters) can be performed using a combination of radar, ultrasound and cameras or LiDAR systems. The first option is inexpensive, but at the same time ineffective, since the frame rate and resolution are very low. Commercially available LiDARs offer high performance, but are very expensive, slow and have limited near-field functionality.

TrueSense, on the other hand, is based on inexpensive time-of-flight imaging chips and LED emitters, has a high-resolution RGB camera and achieves a sampling rate of up to 200 fps. It’s an automotive-grade sensor that works even in bright sunlight and in all of the typical scenarios where flight time is usually an issue.

TrueSense works with two other PreAct products, TrueDrive and TrueSim, to provide customers with a complete object tracking solution. If TrueSense is at the heart, TrueDrive is the brains of the near-field object detection and tracking solution. It converts sensor data captured by one or more TrueSense sensors into integrated 3D point clouds used to quickly define and track objects. Each TrueDrive can connect and sync up to four TrueSense units, allowing for various configurations (see Figure 2). The device integrates a Hyper-ECU that uses parallel processing and targeted AI to quickly perform object definition and tracking, collision detection, volumetric measurements, and more.

Figure 2: TrueDrive is the central processor (Source: PreAct Technologies) (click on the image to enlarge)

TrueSim is a physics-based vehicle simulator that accurately models PreAct sensors and algorithms. It allows PreAct to simulate the sensors on a customer’s platform in a highly accurate virtual environment. TrueSim comes with a large library of vehicles, pedestrians, bikes, road signs, maps, and more. Custom objects can also be defined and added to the library. By offering accurate optics models (e.g. simulating retroreflectors), TrueSim enables rapid algorithm prototyping and ensures sensors work for custom applications.

“With our own in-house simulation tool emulating our LiDAR performance in a realistic environment, we can assess our ability to meet the customer’s needs and in parallel we can start writing the perception software that would be plugged into this LiDAR ‘ Drysch said.

Due to its high accuracy, PreAct’s software-definable LiDAR is a solution that is also suitable for robotics and factory automation. In these applications, one or more TrueSense units can replace existing sensors, simplifying integration and reducing overall costs.

ZF Friedrichshafen is one of the Tier 1 suppliers working with PreAct. They showed some of their work at Plug and Play’s Startup Autobahn last year, including an automatic door operator. Essentially, you walk over to your car, perform a gesture, and PreAct’s vehicle-mounted LiDAR not only recognizes your gesture, but also whether there’s an obstacle (e.g., a pole, trash, fire hydrant) or oncoming traffic ( pedestrians, cyclists, cars or motorcycles) that could cause damage or prevent the door from being opened safely. The same sensor can be used for curb detection, lane change assist and more.

“As you would expect from a software-defined system with the capabilities of our Flash LiDAR, we are constantly responding to customer needs in areas ranging from automotive to robotics to manufacturing. In addition, the software that forms the basis of our solution to real-world operational problems such as field operations can and is continually modified to increase baseline performance,” said Drysch.

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