Big, expensive, and the opposite of aesthetically pleasing are what usually pops into a techie’s head whenever he or she hears the word Lidar, which stands for light detection and ranging. Due to its rather hefty price tag, Lidar’s wondrous abilities are only utilized by experimental cars. The US’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) says that things are about to change.
Enter SWEEPER, which is basically a Lidar-on-a-chip system. SWEEPER is an acronym for: Short-range Wide-field-of-view Extremely agile Electronically steered Photonic EmitteR.
Unlike its bulky predecessor, SWEEPER helps self-driving cars “see” the road through an electronic beam transmitted by many small emitters. These emitters are each equipped with their own unique signals and form a beam that can sweep from one end to another and repeat the process 100,000 times per second. That’s fast; SWEEPER is 10,000 times faster than the “fastest” laser roof ornaments.
While the system only covers a 51-degree field, it’s more than enough considering that it will still help stitch together a perfect panorama of the surroundings. In fact, for a scanner as small as SWEEPER, it’s the widest field of view ever achieved.
What does this mean for all of us? As DARPA’s project manager, Josh Conway, said in a statement: “This wide-angle demonstration of optical phased array technology could lead to greatly enhanced capabilities for numerous military and commercial technologies, including autonomous vehicles, robotics, sensors, and high-data-rate communications.”
Through SWEEPER, self-driving military vehicles will be able to navigate and survey various terrains, thereby impacting how these vehicles steer themselves and improving targeting capabilities.
The biggest draw of SWEEPER is its price. Although DARPA hasn’t announced yet just how much it would actually cost, SWEEPER is expected to cost significantly cheaper than its big brother. This cost-effectiveness could open the doors to mass production, allowing SWEEPER to be utilized not just by high-grade military vehicles, but also by cars, copters, and for other commercial uses.