Metamaterials Improve LIDAR

Light Detection and Ranging or LIDAR is a remote sensing method. The technique uses the time of flight of pulsed laser light to measure variable distances. Airborne systems record additional data, which, when combined with the data from the light pulses are able to generate three-dimensional information about the neighboring environment that offer precise surface characteristics.

In general, a LIDAR comprises a laser, a scanner, and a specialized receiver for Global Positioning System or GPS. Although so far, common platforms for LIDAR used helicopters and airplanes for acquiring data over broad areas, autonomous vehicles are now using Topographic LIDAR extensively for navigation through road traffic using a near-infrared laser to map the nearby area.

Using LIDAR systems help scientists and engineering professionals examine both artificial and natural environments with precision, accuracy, and flexibility. As the market for LIDAR is still in its nascent state and its technologies fragmented, there are only about 70 LIDAR companies worldwide, making it a hotbed of new technology.

For scanning a wide area, conventional LIDAR systems have to rely on electro-mechanical spinners to steer laser light beams. Not only does this method reduce the scan speed, but it also affects measurement accuracy. A Seattle-based, venture-backed startup, Lumotive, is now developing a new technology that will change the way LIDAR systems function.

According to Bill Colleran, co-founder, and CEO of Lumotive, they are developing a LIDAR system that can steer beams but has no moving parts. Rather, their patented technology uses the light-bending properties of metamaterials such as Liquid Crystal Metasurfaces or LCM to steer the laser beams. Bill calls the use of such metamaterials “pivotal technology.”

However, Lumotive is not the only player in the field to offer LIDAR systems that do not rely on mechanical scanning. Other rivals have used optical phased arrays or MEMS mirrors to claim their LIDARs use a lower number or no mechanical components.

According to Bill, Lumotive LIDAR systems use LCM semiconductor chips. The main advantages of LCM are it offers a large optical aperture of about 25 x 25 mm, resulting in a longer range for the LIDAR, along with a 120-degree field of view. The high performance of the LCM comes from its fast-random-access beam steering capability.

When a laser beam shines onto the Lumotive’s liquid crystal metasurface chip, programmed electrical signals can direct the reflected light into any direction within its 120-degree field of view.

Metamaterials are mostly artificially structured materials that allow unprecedented control over their properties, specifically in new ways for controlling the flow of electromagnetic radiation including light. For instance, Kymeta has a flat-panel satellite antenna technology based on metamaterials.

Kymeta’s antenna can move electronically. It does not require the conventional phase shifters, amplifiers, and related components on its surface. This not only cuts down the cost, it also consumes far less power and does not require cooling devices. Compared to conventional antenna systems, Kymeta is able to increase the density of their flat-panel antenna elements dramatically, while controlling the phase and amplitude simply by activating or deactivating individual antenna elements. Lumotive have adapted the Kymeta antenna’s metamaterial architecture to their LIDAR system.