A South African company’s world-class tech is helping Google and Amazon build drones

A small South African tech company called LightWare produces the world’s lightest and most compact scanning LiDAR unit – which is now used by global technology companies.

LiDAR is a detection system which works on the same principle as radar, but uses light from a laser instead of radio waves to detect objects.

LightWare is on the forefront of LiDAR technology development and its LiDAR units are used by global tech leaders, including Google and Amazon.

LightWare executive Philip Constantine said their “LW45 Sense and Avoid microLiDAR” units were designed to solve challenges faced by certain autonomous vehicles.

He explained that drones are unable to see objects in 3D. Instead, they view the world as a series of code. This essentially renders them blind.

Many companies have attempted to overcome the challenges that result from this 2D view through video and invoking machine learning for obstacle detection.

“Inevitably, this raises new complexities. For example, recording video and taking pictures are a deplorable intrusion of privacy and massive amounts of processing power are required to process video in real time,” said Constantine.

The LightWare LW45 follows a different approach. It captures 3D objects (not images) and the data is then processed onboard the microLiDAR device.

This means that no further processing is required and it also circumvents any privacy issues associated with off-device video processing.

This approach also cuts down on costs, weight, and power. Additionally, users are able to access real-time results which enhances navigation.

“This supreme functionality is made possible through oscillating scanners offering a range of 50m and operating off a customer configured field-of-view on a horizontal plane,” said Constantine.

A league of its own

Constantine said the LightWare LW45’s features place it in a league of its own – well ahead of offerings from its competitors.

Another benefit is its small size, as it weighs 35 grams and measures 40 x 40 x 35 mm. This is much smaller than competing products.

Constantine said the LightWare LW45 microLiDAR democratizes machine perception and helps drones to “fly more and crash less”.

“The machine is particularly suited to assisted landings, altitude measurements, terrain following, and position hold,” he said.

“The machines can also play a role in assisting in-flight decision-making, and helping pilots detect and avoid obstacles.”

Production on the LW45 microLiDAR commences in April 2020 and the company has started to deliver its products to international companies.

Chief engineer James Portman soldering components for a new prototype under a microscope

Components on LightWare’s MicroLidar sensors are often smaller than a grain of sand

Philip Constantine displays a customer robot employing LightWare’s MicroLidar sensors

Philip Constantine promoting LightWare’s miniature microLiDAR sensors at this year’s CES technology trade show in Las Vegas

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A South African company’s world-class tech is helping Google and Amazon build drones