It seems like every company that makes LIDAR has a new and clever approach, but Baraja takes the cake. His method is not only elegant and powerful, but basically avoids many problems that interfere with other lidar technologies. But to make progress in this complex and evolving industry, more than just smart technology is required.
To understand how LIDAR works in general, read my hands-on introduction to the topic. Essentially, the scene is scanned or otherwise quickly illuminated by a laser emitted by a device, and the time it takes for the laser's photons to return allows it to measure the distance from any point it points to. to determine fairly precisely.
But to see how Baraja's lidar works, you have to imagine the cover of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon".
Imagine a flashlight that shoots through such a prism and illuminates the scene in front of it. Now imagine you could focus this flashlight by choosing which color comes out of the prism and sending more light into the upper part of the scene (red and orange). or medium (yellow and green). This is what Barajas Lidar does, except, of course, that it's a little more complicated.
The company has been developing its technology for years with the support of Sequoia and the Australian VC team Blackbird, who led a $ 32 million round in late 2018. Baraja did not present his technology until next year and exhibited it at CES, where I met with co and CEO Federico Collarte.
"We have been hidden for a long, long time," he told me. "The people who needed to know already knew about us."
The idea for the technology came from the telecommunications industry, in which Collarte and co-founders were Cibby Pulikkaseril thought of a new use for a fiber optic laser that could be reconfigured extremely quickly.
"We thought we could free the light, send it through prism-like optics, and then steer a laser beam without moving parts. The idea seemed too simple – we thought "if it worked, everyone would do it that way," he told me, but they quit their jobs and still worked on it with friends and family for a few months. "It turns out to work, and the invention is very new, so we managed to patent it."
Instead of sending a coherent laser with a single wavelength (1550 nanometers, far into the infrared is the lidar standard), Baraja uses a set of fixed lenses to refract this beam into a spectrum that extends vertically across his field of view , It does not split a single beam, but rather a series of coded pulses, each with a slightly different wavelength, which move through the lenses in a slightly different way. It returns in the same way, with the lenses bending it in the opposite direction to return to its origin for detection.
It's a bit difficult to understand this concept, but once you do it, it's hard to see it as anything but amazingly clever. Not only because of the intriguing look (something I don't get involved with if it's not obvious), but also because it avoids a number of serious problems that other lidars face or face.
First, there are virtually no moving parts in the entire Baraja system. Spinning lidars like the popular early Velodyne devices are being replaced by those that use metamaterials, MEMS, and other methods that have no bearings or hinges that can wear out.
In Baraja's system there are two units, a "stupid" head and an "engine". The head has no moving parts and no electronics. It's all glass, just a set of lenses. The motor, which can be close or a foot or two away, generates the laser and sends it to the head via a fiber optic cable (and a kind of proprietary mechanism that rotates slowly enough to theoretically work continuously for years). , This means that it is not only physically very robust, but that its volume can be distributed wherever it is beneficial for the body of the vehicle. The head itself can also be changed in size more or less without changing the optical design, said Collarte.
Second, the method of diffracting the beam gives the system considerable latitude in how it covers the scene. Different wavelengths are emitted at different vertical angles. A shorter wavelength goes up and a slightly longer one goes down. But the 1550 +/- 20 nanometer band enables millions of fractionally Wavelengths the system can choose between so that it can set its own vertical resolution.
For example, (these numbers are imaginary) it could emit a beam per quarter nanometer wavelength, which corresponds to a beam that emerges vertically every quarter degrees, and covering the wavelength from bottom to top in its frequency range from top to bottom in the scene evenly distributed rays at appropriate intervals.
But why should you waste a few rays in the sky when you know that most of the action takes place in the middle of the scene, where the street and the streets are? In this case, you can send out a few high-frequency beams to check them there and then return to the middle frequencies, where you can then send out beams a thousandth of a nanometer apart, which come out close enough to create a denser image this central region.
Don't worry if this hurts your brain a little. Just think of the dark side of the moon and imagine that you could skip red, orange, and purple and send out more rays in green and blue – and since you only use these colors, you can send out more shades of green – blue and deep blue than before.
Third, the process for generating the spectral beam prevents interference from other lidar systems. It is an emerging problem that lidar systems of one type could inadvertently emit or reflect rays into one another, generating noise and interfering with normal operation. Most companies try to mitigate this in one way or another, but Baraja's method avoids the possibility altogether.
"The interference problem – they live with it. We solved it," said Collarte.
The spectrum system means that a beam that interferes with the sensor must have both a perfect frequency match and an exact angle at which this frequency emerges from the lens and returns to the lens. This is already unlikely, but astronomically speaking, each beam of the Baraja device is not a single pulse, but rather a coded series of pulses that can be identified individually. The company's core technology and secret sauce is the ability to modulate and pulse the laser millions of times per second.
Collarte admitted that competition in the lidar sector is tough, but not necessarily competition for customers. “They didn't solve the autonomy problem,” he emphasizes, “that's why the volumes are too small. Many are running out of money. So if you don't differentiate, you die. "And some have.
Instead, companies compete for partners and investors and must show that their solution is not only a good technical idea, but that it represents a solid investment and can be used to a reasonable extent on a large scale. Collarte praised its investors Sequoia and Blackbird, but also said the company will shortly announce significant partnerships both in the automotive sector and beyond.