Aurora, the autonomous vehicle company that recently closed its acquisition of Uber’s self-driving subsidiary, has snapped up another startup.
This time, Aurora is buying OURS Technology, the second lidar startup it has acquired in less than two years. Aurora acquired Blackmore, a Montana-based lidar startup, in May 2019. Aurora declined to disclose the acquisition price or other financial terms of the deal. OURS Technology, which was founded in 2017 by a team of University of California-Berkeley researchers and PhDs, employs 12 people. The entire team is heading to Aurora, according to the company.
“We are always on the lookout for how we can make progress as quickly as possible and OURS’s expertise in developing lidar chips adds to the expertise we already have and accelerates our work,” an Aurora spokesperson said.
Lidar, or light detection and ranging radar, is considered by most companies developing autonomous driving systems a critical and necessary sensor to safely deploy self-driving vehicles at scale. A future where millions of self-driving vehicles coursing through cities is still years — even decades some argue — away. But that hasn’t prevented dozens of lidar companies from launching, each one aiming to cash in on that eventual demand.
The vast majority of the 70-odd companies that exist in the industry today are developing and trying to sell time-of-flight lidar sensors, which send out pulses of light outside the visible spectrum and then measure how long it takes for each of those pulses to return. As they come back, the direction of, and distance to, whatever those pulses hit are recorded as a point and eventually forms a 3D map.
Some lidar companies, including Blackmore and OURS Technology, are pursuing Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) lidar, which emits a low-power and continuous wave, or stream, of light. FMCW lidar developers tout two primary benefits of this technology. It can measure distance with a higher dynamic range and instant velocity, meaning it can gauge the speed of the objects coming to or moving away from them. It also doesn’t struggle with interference from the sun or other other sensors.
But FMCW is also complex. FMCW starts as a range finder on a chip. To make it a 3D lidar, many FMCW developers use big mirrors and other components to provide the field of view, which pushes up the size of the sensors. OURS Technology claims to be a lidar-on-a-chip company, which suggests that this four-year-old company has developed a way to combine everything into a solid-state scanning mechanism. This would allow the sensor to shrink in size, solving one of FMCW’s primary issues.
Aurora unveiled last summer its so-called FirstLight Lidar, a sensor based on Blackmore’s technology that was developed for its fleet of self-driving vehicles, namely long-haul trucks. Aurora is clearly interested in OURS’s speed of development, noting in its announcement that the startup been able to produce four generations of lidar in just three years and developed a solid-state scanning mechanism compatible with its technology.
The company plans to use the startup’s expertise and development know-how to make its sensor scalable. In short: Aurora hopes to use OURS’s team and their blueprint for key elements such as the solid-state scanning mechanism and development process to accelerate development.
“Now, as we look to expand our fleet and commercialize our driverless trucks, FirstLight lidar must be increasingly scalable — it needs to be smaller and less expensive, but just as powerful,” the company said.