Nikon partnership nods to big ambitions for 4D sensing company

How a new approach to lidar technology may give one company a competitive advantage in a variety of industries.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

A company that makes an innovative type of lidar that modulates frequency (by far the most commonly commercialized method is to modulate amplitude) is taking aim at the industrial automation space with a new partnership. Aeva is entering into a strategic partnership with Nikon that will bring micron-level measurement capabilities to the industrial automation and metrology spaces.

Nikon is a big player in metrology and industrial automation markets, serving customers that include major global automotive OEMs and aerospace industries. For Aeva, a far newer player, that market position will help bring FM lidar technology to market far faster than going it alone.

Frequency modulation is not a common approach among commercialized lidar developers. As I've written before, companies using AM lidar modulate the amplitude of pulsed waves from a spinning laser array and then calculate the time it takes for the light to bounce back. It uses the information to get a fix on objects in the sensing field, such as other cars or pedestrians.

To date, over 95 percent of the $1.1 billion "lidar bubble" is invested in companies pursuing AM sensing. So it must be pretty rock solid, right?

Not according to companies like Aeva, along with a small handful of other firms, modulate the frequency of the laser wave instead of the amplitude. The lasers don't pulse, as AM lidar does. Instead, small frequency changes are made to a continuous wave. The sensor then measures Doppler effect, defined as an increase or decrease in the frequency of waves as the source and observer move toward or away from each other. 

According to advocates of doppler lidar, conventional AM lidar is highly vulnerable to interference from sunlight and other sensors. It's also computationally intense and error-prone in the way it deduces the velocity of objects over multiple frames of data. AM lidar uses all kinds of computational tricks to determine the velocity of objects, which is made more complex by the high error rate caused by lighting inconsistencies and sun glare.

The technology has obvious applications in autonomous driving systems, but Aeva's ambitions are much broader, targeting the booming industrial automation sectors.

"This marks a milestone for Aeva's expansion strategy beyond autonomous driving applications. We're excited to work closely with a leader like Nikon in an established market with massive growth potential as we accelerate our expansion into industrial applications, targeting product release in 2025," says Soroush Salehian, Co-Founder and CEO at Aeva. "By leveraging our common core LiDAR chip architecture that we've already developed for automotive applications, we can bring industry leading costs to volume scale, which we believe has the potential to upend the growing industrial automation industry."

Ava was founded in 2017 by former Apple engineers Salehian and Mina Rezk, and their big appetite for a variety of sectors is reflected in the multidisciplinary team of engineers and operators the company has onboarded. Areas of possible application include consumer electronics, consumer health, industrial robotics, and security.

"Our 4D LiDAR on chip technology has the capability to provide unparalleled performance through proprietary software on existing hardware," says Rezk, Co-Founder and CTO at Aeva. "This solution will achieve measurements with micron-level accuracy and will unlock entirely new applications beyond autonomous driving. Nikon is a world leader when it comes to delivering high precision industrial solutions of the highest quality, and we're thrilled to collaborate to bring our unique technology to industrial applications."

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