Luminar Acquires Black Forest Engineering

Image Sensors World        Go to the original article...

Optics.org, Techcrunch: Colorado Springs-based image sensor and ROIC design house Black Forest Engineering has been acquired by a LiDAR startup Luminar:

"“This year for us is all about scale. Last year it took a whole day to build each unit — they were being hand assembled by optics PhDs,” said Luminar’s wunderkind founder Austin Russell. “Now we’ve got a 136,000 square foot manufacturing center and we’re down to 8 minutes a unit.”

...the production unit is about 30 percent lighter and more power efficient, can see a bit further (250 meters vs 200), and detect objects with lower reflectivity (think people wearing black clothes in the dark).

The secret is the sensor. Most photosensors in other lidar systems use a silicon-based photodetector. Luminar, however, decided to start from the ground up with InGaAs.

The problem is that indium gallium arsenide is like the Dom Perignon of sensor substrates. It’s expensive as hell and designing for it is a highly specialized field. Luminar only got away with it by minimizing the amount of InGaAs used: only a tiny sliver of it is used where it’s needed, and they engineered around that rather than use the arrays of photodetectors found in many other lidar products. (This restriction goes hand in glove with the “fewer moving parts” and single laser method.)

Last year Luminar was working with a company called Black Forest Engineering to design these chips, and finding their paths inextricably linked, Luminar bought them. The 30 employees at Black Forest, combined with the 200 hired since coming out of stealth, brings the company to 350 total.

By bringing the designers in house and building their own custom versions of not just the photodetector but also the various chips needed to parse and pass on the signals, they brought the cost of the receiver down from tens of thousands of dollars to… three dollars.

“We’ve been able to get rid of these expensive processing chips for timing and stuff,” said Russell. “We build our own ASIC. We only take like a speck of InGaAs and put it onto the chip. And we custom fab the chips.”

“This is something people have assumed there was no way you could ever scale it for production fleets,” he continued. “Well, it turns out it doesn’t actually have to be expensive!”
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Update: IEEE Spectrum publishes a larger image of Luminar's InGaAs sensors:

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