Velodyne was the pioneer in automotive lidar sensors, providing the units used on the vehicles that won the DARPA Grand Challenge 13 years ago. Those iconic rotating buckets on the roof of many early automated driving prototypes worked, but at $80,000 they were way too expensive to ever be practical for regular use. Velodyne has just announced its latest sensor, the Velarray H800 with a target price of just $500.
The Velarray H800 is the first of Velodyne’s line of solid-state lidar sensors. It utilizes Velodyne’s proprietary micro-lidar array architecture (MLA) with multiple laser emitters. The MLA system consists of an array of eight edge emitting lasers in a very small package about the size of a postage stamp when combined with Velodyne’s proprietary ASIC chip and photo detectors. This configuration is claimed to be much more amenable to automated manufacturing that brings down cost and improves quality.
The classic rotating lidar sensors scan the surroundings by mounting the lasers and detectors on a turntable mechanism which is more prone to durability challenges and much more expensive to manufacture. Many of the solid-state sensors such as those from Innoviz that will be used by BMW on the upcoming iX use a micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) mirror to steer the beam coming from the stationary lasers. This is one of the areas where Velodyne claims to have an advantage over its competitors although they are reluctant to get into specifics.
“Let’s, let’s say it’s a combination of MEMS-like, technologies, but a proprietary method of doing it,” said Anand Gopalan, CEO of Velodyne. “It goes away from the disadvantages of classical MEMS, which is the fact that as we go through a MEMS device you lose about half the light.”
Losing the light emitted from the lasers has an impact on the the ability to reliably detect objects and cuts the range. Velodyne claims the H800 has a range of 200 m which should be sufficient for most driving assist and partial automation applications.
The H800 has a horizontal field of view of 120 degrees and 16 degrees vertical. The angular resolution which is critical to being able to detect objects at longer distances is dynamically variable from 0.1 deg to 0.25 deg. The larger the angle, the greater the distance between points further away from the sensor and the fewer returns it can deliver.
With its $500 price point, Velodyne is targeting the H800 at the level 2+ and level 3 market for partially automated systems in the near term. Multiple automakers have announced plans to launch such systems with competing lidar sensors in the next two years including Lucid, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and BMW. Volvo will have Luminar lidar on its next-generation XC90 in 2022 while the new BMW iX will have Innoviz sensors.
The H800 could be used for highly automated L4 systems as well, although four sensors would be required to provide a 360 degree view. However, the relatively narrow 16 degree vertical field of view also limits the applicability of the H800 as the sole lidar sensor type in these applications. They can be used in combination with a rooftop rotating sensor to provide short to medium range sensing down low around the vehicle. Ford’s fourth-generation automated vehicle prototype is an example of this approach with a Velodyne Alpha Prime sensor on the roof and five short range lidars around the vehicle. Ford hasn’t identified the supplier of the lidars, but they don’t appear to be Velodyne units in the photos.
Velodyne is now shipping samples of the Velarray H800 to qualified customers and expects to have automotive grade production volumes available in the second half of 2021.
“We have been working with some lead auto OEM customers for multiple platforms on the sensor,” added Gopalan. “In fact it was designed in conjunction with some lead OEMs for their programs. We have publicly talked about the fact that he have signed or awarded agreements across many different segments including automotive. And that’s as much as I can say in the public domain.”
With lidar sensors like the Velarray H800, Aeye 4Sight, Ouster ES2, IbeoNext and others now getting into the range from low to high hundreds of dollars and numerous automakers launching vehicles using lidar, the technology is rapidly becoming a real, viable automotive product.