Researchers at MIT and DARPA have created a tiny Lidar sensor that is packed onto a single chip. As you can see in the image, the Lidar sensor is so small that you could pack many of them onto the surface of a dime. Lidar, or light detection and ranging, sensors are a technology that uses laser light and is similar to radar. The big benefit of Lidar over radar is that Lidar can have a higher resolution.
This is thanks to the fact that the wavelength of light is about 100,000 times smaller than the wavelength of radio. Lidar is commonly used in autonomous cars and robotics today. Lidar systems commonly seen on autonomous cars today use discrete free-space optical components like lasers, lenses, and larger external received. That laser receiver module is spun around mechanically and can be oscillated up and down to give a full field of view. Current Lidar systems can cost from $1000 to $70,000.
The new Lidar sensor developed by MIT and DARPA is vastly smaller than current sensors and are made using 300mm wafers. This means that the potential production cost for the sensors is around $10 each at production levels of millions per year. With no moving parts, the sensors could be much more robust and the sensor is 1000 times faster than what is available with current mechanical Lidar systems.
That massively enhanced speed is great for tracking small objects only in the field of view of the sensor for short times. The tiny sensor measures 0.5mm x 6mm and has steerable transmitting and receiving phased arrays and on-chip germanium photodetectors. The laser isn’t integrated, but the researchers say that other teams have demonstrated on-chip lasers that can be integrated in the future. There is no indication of when these sensors might be commercialized.