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Velodyne Will Sell a Lidar for $100

This one will go into cars driven by human beings

2 min read
Illustration of a car with Velodyne's Velabit automotive lidar.
Illustration: Velodyne

Velodyne claims to have broken the US $100 barrier for automotive lidar with its tiny Velabit, which it unveiled at CES earlier this month.

“Claims” is the mot juste because this nice, round dollar amount is an estimate based on the mass-manufacturing maturity of a product that has yet to ship. Such a factoid would hardly be worth mentioning had it come from some of the several-score odd lidar startups that haven’t shipped anything at all. But Velodyne created this industry back during DARPA-funded competitions, and has been the market leader ever since.

“The projection is $100 at volume; we’ll start sampling customers in the next few months,” Anand Gopalan, the company’s chief technology officer, tells IEEE Spectrum.

The company says in a release that the Velabit “delivers the same technology and performance found on Velodyne’s full suite of state-of-the-art sensors.” Given the device’s small size, that must mean the solid-state version of the technology. That is, the non-rotating kind.

Gopalan wouldn’t say much about how it works, only that the beam-steering did not use tiny mirrors based on micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS). “It differs from MEMS in that there’s no loss of form factor or loss of light,” he said. “In the most general language, it uses a metamaterial activated by low-cost electronics.”

Metamaterials also figure in a lidar from Lumotive.

The Velabit is no replacement for Velodyne’s iconic rotating roof tower, whose 128 laser beams rake a 360-degree field. To get that much coverage from this little lidar, you’d need six units; even then you’d see just 100 meters out, compared to the 128 beamer’s nearly 220 meters.

That’s okay. The new product isn’t meant for true driverless cars, of which there are precisely none on the market now (or likely anytime soon). Rather it’s for use in advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), such as emergency braking, lane keeping, and adaptive cruise control.

“In the past 12 to 18 months [carmakers] are saying that lidar can be a very important tool for ADAS,” Gopalan says. “And even in a luxury car, a safety option can’t cost more than few thousand [dollars]; a single device therefore has to be less.”

Velodyne's Velabit automotive lidar compared to the size of 4 playing cardsImage: Velodyne

Another advantage is the Velabit’s compactness—at 6 x 6 x 3.5 centimeters, smaller than a deck of cards—which makes it possible for car designers to hide it, say, in the grille. It also makes it suitable for use in drones, robots, and road signs.

After specializing in hand-aligned apparatus that it sold in tiny numbers at stratospheric prices—around $80,000 for the 128-beam machine—Velodyne has moved to fully automated assembly, higher volumes, and lower margins. That was always going to happen as lidar moved out of the lab and into commercial products. But competitive pressures were also at play.

Velodyne once eschewed short- and medium-range lidar. Then Waymo, which was undoubtedly Velodyne’s largest single customer, began designing and building lidars of all ranges in-house. Last March, it began selling the short-range model.

Even the high end is getting more competitive and less stratospheric. At CES, Ouster showed off its own 128-beam rooftop monster. It will sell at the low, low price of $24,000.

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Europe Expands Virtual Borders To Thwart Migrants

Our investigation reveals that Europe is turning to remote sensing to detect seafaring migrants so African countries can pull them back

14 min read
A photo of a number of people sitting in a inflatable boat on the water with a patrol ship in the background.

Migrants in a dinghy accompanied by a Frontex vessel at the village of Skala Sikaminias, on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on 28 February 2020.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

It was after midnight in the Maltese search-and-rescue zone of the Mediterranean when a rubber boat originating from Libya carrying dozens of migrants encountered a hulking cargo ship from Madeira and a European military aircraft. The ship’s captain stopped the engines, and the aircraft flashed its lights at the rubber boat. But neither the ship nor the aircraft came to the rescue. Instead, Maltese authorities told the ship’s captain to wait for vessels from Malta to pick up the migrants. By the time those boats arrived, three migrants had drowned trying to swim to the idle ship.

The private, Malta-based vessels picked up the survivors, steamed about 237 kilometers south, and handed over the migrants to authorities in Libya, which was and is in the midst of a civil war, rather than return to Malta, 160 km away. Five more migrants died on the southward journey. By delivering the migrants there, the masters of the Maltese vessels, and perhaps the European rescue authorities involved, may have violated the international law of the sea, which requires ship masters to return people they rescue to a safe port. Instead, migrants returned to Libya over the last decade have reported enslavement, physical abuse, extortion, and murders while they try to cross the Mediterranean.

If it were legal to deliver rescued migrants to Libya, it would be as cheap as sending rescue boats a few extra kilometers south instead of east. But over the last few years, Europe’s maritime military patrols have conducted fewer and fewer sea rescue operations, while adding crewed and uncrewed aerial patrols and investing in remote-sensing technology to create expanded virtual borders to stop migrants before they get near a physical border.

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