The University of Southampton

Silicon photonics platform redefines 3D imaging performance

Published: 16 February 2021
An exercise ball and screen at 40m taken using a 32x16 pixel sensor

Scientists at the Optoelectronics Research Centre and Pointcloud Inc in San Francisco have developed a compact LiDAR system for machines to accurately see a three-dimensional world in motion.

The low-cost solution could pave the way for large volume production of low-cost, compact and high-performance 3D imaging cameras for use in robotics, autonomous navigation systems, the mapping of building sites and healthcare.

The latest tests of the prototype, published in the journal Nature, show that it has an accuracy of 3.1 millimetres at a distance of 75 metres.

LiDAR systems use light to determine the distance of objects from the sensor and construct a 3D image of a scene. Some systems, including the one reported here, can also determine the speed of objects.

3D LiDAR is the "eyes" for autonomous cars and is used in facial recognition software together with autonomous robots and drones. Accurate imaging is essential for machines to map and interact with the physical world but the size and costs of the technology currently needed has limited LiDAR’s use in commercial applications.

The new, integrated system, uses silicon photonic components and CMOS electronic circuits in the same microchip. The Optoelectronics Research Centre, based in the University of Southampton's Zepler Institute for Photonics and Nanoelectronics is a world-leading hub for silicon photonics research.

Professor Graham Reed, Deputy Director of the ORC and Head of Silicon Photonics Research Group, says: "LiDAR has been promising a lot but has not always delivered on its potential in recent years because, although experts have recognised that integrated versions can scale down costs, the necessary performance has not been there. Until now.

"The silicon photonics system we have developed provides much higher accuracy at distance compared to other chip-based LiDAR systems to date, and most mechanical versions, showing that the much sought-after integrated system for LiDAR is viable."

Read the full story on the main news page.

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