Aurora, an autonomous driving technology company, will be using their funds from a recent investment round from retail giant Amazon to purchase the manufacturer of a laser lidar system that will help self-driving vehicles detect the environment around them better.
Blackmore, the lidar maker headed by Chris Urmson the former head of Google's Waymo, was bought for an undisclosed amount and will be combined into Aurora. The company's systems have mostly been used by the US Defense Department, but Aurora believes the system could easily be used in autonomous vehicles for cheaper, better results.
“What they’ve been developing is a type of lidar, an FMCW—frequency modulating continuous wave—lidar, which is really the next-generation technology in the lidar space, that allows us to measure at greater distances, and also measure velocity for each of the points in the point cloud that it generates,” Urmson told Forbes. “We think this is a huge step forward for lidar technologies. … They have what we think is the world’s best capability in this next generation, lidar technology.”
Aurora has seen heavy investments within the autonomous industry including having recently finished a $620 million fund raising round earlier this year from investors like Amazon, Sequoia Capital, and T. Rowe Price. The company develops software and artificial intelligence for self-driving cars however they aren't venturing into their own fleet like other companies have. The company is focused on strategic partnerships with Hyundai, Volkswagen, and the Chinese-based electric car company Byton to create their own autonomous cars.
Purchasing Blackmore is Aurora's biggest move yet. Blackmore currently has around 70 employees including veterans from companies like Tesla and Uber.
AM Versus FM
Some within the industry, like Tesla's Elon Musk, don't believe that lidar is needed in autonomous vehicles. But other companies like Waymo and General Motors' Cruise both have invested heavily in their own lidar systems for their self-driving efforts.
Lidar is able to sense what is around an autonomous vehicle and create a detailed map and work together with cameras and radar. Currently Velodyne has lead the lidar market, but recently new companies like AEye, Aeva, and Luminar have received investments and key partnerships in order to grow in this expanding industry.
Blackmore uses cheaper materials that fiber optic communications currently use that won't run into the problem of interference from other lidar systems also driving around.
“We're really the pioneers in FM lidar,” Blackmore Founder and CEO Randy Reibel says. “The easiest analogy is AM radio versus FM radio. If you think back to the days of broadcast radio, AM radio has a lot of interference. It’s staticky. When you work with an FM lidar system, or an FM radio, you don’t have that interference. That’s a huge deal in this space, especially from a safety perspective. … As we start to pack the roads with hundreds and hundreds of lidars in close proximity, they’re going to crosstalk. With an FM lidar, you don’t have any of those interference challenges.”