LiDAR extends autonomous horizon

| Transport

ThorDrive is using LiDAR technology to bring greater autonomy to airport ground operations

LiDAR is gaining traction as the means to provide autonomous vehicles with an awareness of their surroundings

Pulsed laser based Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) sensors have been earmarked as the technology of choice to give autonomous vehicles a sense of their surroundings for some time. With rapid mapping capabilities and the ability to process millions of mapping points per second, LiDAR has the capability of building a computer-readable topological map of changing environments within its field of view.

This ability makes it ideal for use in moving vehicles for detecting road edges, pedestrians, other vehicles etc as they’re moving along. In its initial phases, there were drawbacks in terms of size, accuracy and detection reliability but as the technology has matured, its now finding more mainstream use across a range of automotive applications.

Principal amongst the LiDAR suppliers is California-based manufacturer, Velodyne, which has been pursuing end use cases since its infancy and has played a significant role in perfecting the technology to the point where it has become more attractive to major automotive manufacturers.

Airport Transport

A recent application for Velodyne’s well-established Ultra Puck sensors saw them being integrated on ThorDrive autonomous cargo and baggage ground support tractors in an autonomous vehicle (AV) project at the Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG).

In 2019, CVG, the 7th largest cargo airport in North America, handled over 1.2 million tons of cargo and baggage for more than 9 million passengers. By using ThorDrive’s trucks, airlines are able to autonomously transport baggage and cargo to and from planes and throughout facilities at any time.

ThorDrive chose Ultra Puck because the sensor’s patented 3D surround view technology provides real-time object detection needed for safe, efficient navigation and dependable operation. The Ultra Puck enables the AVs to use existing infrastructure and they can operate in harsh weather conditions including rain, snow and ice, day and night.

ThorDrive’s VP of Business Development, Edward Shelton, is an advocate of the the LiDAR approach. According to him, the Thordrive software is tuned to the Velodyne sensors’ state-of-the-art capabilities, advancing airline logistics and future applications for autonomous airport ground operations technology. “In working with Velodyne, we are able to move towards the future of moving cargo, equipment and materials,” he says.

Advancing Detection Technology

Airport ground operations represent a complex detection environment but is also a good development sand-pit. Vehicles are relatively slow moving and aesthetics is not a prime consideration.

The Ultra Puck has come a long way since the early “spinning bucket” style LiDAR sensors. The Ultra Puck is small and can be positioned unobtrusively on the vehicle.

Nonetheless, Velodyne has moved the technology onwards and this summer it announced its next generation Velabit Sensor. The Velabit reduces the visual profile of the sensor considerably in a very small unit that can blend in with the styling of most vehicles.

According to Velodyne, the Velabit Sensor addresses the design challenges of autonomous applications while delivering state-of-the-art performance. Equipped with Velodyne’s proprietary micro-LiDAR array architecture (MLA), the Velabit provides an ultra-wide field of view (FoV) and higher resolution.

The solid-state sensor now has a simultaneously achievable maximum horizontal FoV of 90° and maximum vertical FOV of 70°, approximately three times more points per second than the previous model. The next generation Velabit offers a configurable and dynamic field of view and delivers a high-resolution zoom capability, all within a compact and lightweight sensor.

Vehicle Integration

Engineered to be an optimal automotive-grade LiDAR sensor for Advanced Driver Assist Systems (ADAS) and autonomous vehicles, Velabit can fill sensing gaps, helping automotive manufacturers achieve full coverage around a vehicle. The sensor enables robust perception coverage for ADAS features including Blind-Spot Monitoring, Cross-Traffic Detection, and Pedestrian Automatic Emergency Braking (PAEB). Additionally, the wide vertical field of view makes this an ideal technology for near-field sensing and robotics applications.

The sensor integrates with Velodyne’s LiDAR-based perception software, Vella, to streamline AV projects and advance a broad spectrum of vehicle safety functions. The software translates Velabit’s high-quality point cloud data into valuable perception outputs, including object classification and tracking, obstacle detection, scene segmentation and object velocity, that can be readily used by vehicle systems. When combined with vehicle data, Vella provides time and distance to collision measurements, enabling safer vehicle response.

The sensor can also be combined with other Velodyne LiDAR technologies, such as the Velarray H800, for high-speed operation or function as a standalone LiDAR system in low-speed applications.

LiDAR for High Performance EV

Velodyne has already found an application for its slimmed down LiDAR products in deal announced this Spring with American EV supercar manufacturer, Faraday Future (FF).

Velodyne’s solid state Velarray H800 LiDAR sensors will power Faraday Future’s flagship FF 91’s autonomous driving system that aims to deliver a comprehensive suite of highway, urban and parking autonomy features.

The ultimate-intelligent, tech-luxury FF 91 promises to deliver a unique electric mobility experience which combines extreme technology, ultimate user-experience and holistic technology. The FF 91 is planned to be launched within the next 12 months after a venture capital financing deal was reached.

According to Carsten Breitfeld, CEO of Faraday Future, the company is embracing the latest technology, including Velodyne’s Velarray H800, to develop driver assist features that help to deliver new levels of safety, driver comfort and convenience.

“The new sensor supports safe navigation and collision avoidance, incorporated in the current vehicle architecture in a way that allows the FF 91 to maintain its future-forward design,” he says.

“Velodyne and Faraday Future are both committed to redefining the mobility experience through greater vehicle autonomy and safety,” said Anand Gopalan, CEO, Velodyne LiDAR. “Velodyne and Faraday Future tech teams have maintained great synergy for many years. Our close relationship led Velodyne to become a direct supplier to Faraday Future and help them bring their next-generation mobility vision to reality on roadways worldwide.”

The Velarray H800 is a solid state LiDAR sensor architected for automotive grade performance and built using Velodyne’s breakthrough proprietary micro-LiDAR array architecture (MLA), similar to the Velabit. The sensor’s compact, embeddable form factor allows for the sensor to be seamlessly situated behind the vehicle’s windshield for streamlined, flawless integration. With combined long-range perception and a broad field of view, the Velarray H800 is designed for safe navigation and collision avoidance in ADAS and autonomous mobility applications.

With the use of solid state LiDAR technology in the FF 91, the way is now paved for similar applications where aesthetics conscious vehicle designers don’t have to worry about sensors spoiling the vehicle’s appearance but can still gain the benefits provided by the technology.

Jonathan Newell
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