FREMONT, CA: In the competition to develop a technology that is about training robots how to recognize their environs, Aurora just bought itself a fresh set of eyeballs. The developer of self-driving car tools has announced its acquirement of lidar (light detection and ranging) maker Blackmore, whose laser scanning technology offers the unusual ability not just to sense nearby objects, but to determine their velocity.
The Montana-based business, which started up a decade ago as a subsidiary for the defense industry, uses a “frequency modulated continuous wave” system, also known as a Doppler lidar. The moment infrared light hits an object and bounces back, the system identifies both how far away it is (derived from how long the round trip takes) and its velocity. To know where something is headed and how fast is prized data.
Aurora, co-founded in late 2016, has partnerships with Hyundai, Volkswagen, and the electric car startup Byton. The startup, a machine learning (ML) specialist has much in its plate to think about its business model. In February, Aurora landed $530 million in Series B funding, conducted by Sequoia Capital and joined by Amazon.
The Blackmore team will continue to stay in Bozeman but work closely with Aurora’s perception engineers, based in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Pittsburgh. Together, the aim is to find a balance between the data that accommodates robots best in learning to drive and take control of vehicles. Eventually, the team’s principal aim is to mass-produce a lidar that can endure the rigors of the road, with making it cost-effective.
Not everybody thinks lasers are the solution to cracking self-driving. But it is an alluring vision because cameras are already low-priced and reliable. There are companies developing camera systems that can recognize and track other vehicles up to 1,000 meters away, much farther than any lidar senses. Lidar makers, therefore, are hopeful of finding a system that balances range, resolution, consistency, cost, and the aptitude to scale up manufacturing.