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Optical Design & Engineering

Luminar enters autonomous vehicle market with breakthrough lidar

SPIE Newsroom
13 April 2017

Luminar Technologies, a U.S.-based photonics startup, has announced it is beginning production of a new kind of LiDAR system designed to make autonomous vehicles (AVs) safe and the production scalable.

The company, founded by SPIE member and inventor Austin Russell and serial photonics entrepreneur Jason Eichenholz, an SPIE Fellow, has been in "stealth" mode for five years, raising seed funding and engineering and manufacturing all major components of the LiDAR system, including the chips, lasers, receivers, scanners, and processing electronics.

Russell, Luminar's CEO, and Eichenholz, the CTO, says they have created the first LiDAR system to achieve the necessary range and resolution to drive autonomous vehicles safely and at full speed, meeting the needs of every major AV program.

Luminar's LiDAR data captured driving along the San Francisco Embarcadero. At 200 meters, Luminar's LiDAR system can detect hard-to-see objects at 10 percent reflectivity.

The company is in the midst of a limited production run with four major autonomous vehicle programs selected as strategic partners for early testing, they said. A 10,000-unit run will begin in its new 50,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Orlando, FL, with deliveries later this year. 

Luminar has made two acquisitions to increase their team to more than 150 people, and has raised $36 million in seed capital from investors Canvas Ventures, GVA Capital, and 1517 Fund, among others.

The result is a LiDAR sensor that sets new standards in performance, scalability, and autonomous vehicle safety, Russell said. "We had to find 2,000 ways not to make a LiDAR system, before we made a breakthrough and found the one way that finally delivers on what the industry needs," Russell said. 

Luminar operates at the 1550nm wavelength, which allows it to be 40 times more powerful than legacy systems, while staying eye-safe. The receiver is built using an InGaAs design, as opposed to standard silicon.

Although InGaAs is traditionally considered too costly to pursue for mass-market LiDAR production, Luminar has made a number of breakthroughs to reduce the cost of its InGaAs-based receiver.

A lidar system on the roof of a vehicle.

This lidar system is mounted on the roof of a vehicle. Courtesy Luminar Technologies.

The Luminar system has the ability to see at 50 times greater resolution and 10 times longer range than current systems. This means that at 200 meters, Luminar can detect hard-to-see, low-reflectivity objects like a black car or tire on the road, and offer a full seven seconds of reaction time at 75 mph. The best performing systems deployed today see such objects (assuming 10% reflectivity) at less than 35 meters, which at highway speeds offers less than one second of reaction time.

"Photonics is instrumental in making self-driving cars safe and ubiquitous," said Eichenholz, who has spent 25 years actively involved in laser, optics, and photonics R&D. "Of all the technical challenges I've faced in my career, building Luminar's LiDAR system has been the most challenging and rewarding. Working in this industry has never been more exciting."

Luminar co-founders, Austin Russell and Jason Eichenholz

Luminar co-founders, Austin Russell and Jason Eichenholz. Courtesy Luminar Technologies.

Russell is an applied physicist and inventor with a background in photonics and computer engineering. He founded Luminar in 2012 with a vision to develop LiDAR technologies for autonomous vehicles, and tapped his mentor, Eichenholz, two years later to bring the technology to production.

In 2016, Luminar acquired Eichenholz's company, Open Photonics, a SPIE Corporate Member and frequent sponsor of the SPIE Startup Challenge at Photonics West.


"I have seen many LiDAR systems in my time, but this is a truly innovative system for its resolution, range and compactness," said SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs. "And it is not another 'lab hero set up'. It is a real product already being made in quantity. Very impressive."