Startup Light Nets $121M in Funding From Softbank & Leica

Silicon Valley startup Light announced this week that it had raised $121 million in funding from SoftBank Vision Fund, as well as global imaging powerhouse Leica Camera.

Light’s imaging technology could be adapted for use in autonomous vehicles and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), providing cameras that help self-driving cars better detect and analyze their surroundings.

The company’s cameras use sophisticated software algorithms to combine images from multiple camera angles into one image, creating highly accurate 3D photos.

The company’s Capacitor camera control chip and its Polar Fusion Engine, which enable multi-image processing, are currently licensed for use in applications such as smartphones, robotics and drones.

This same type of photographic technology could augment or even replace pricey Lidar technology and help automotive OEMs keep AV development and productions costs down.

Lidar — a type of laser vision that keeps self-driving cars continuously positioned on the road — is key to the mainstream adoption of self-driving cars. However, the technology is typically the most expensive item on the equipment list.

“Our technology is capable of perceiving in three dimensions in high resolution and at long distances without the needs for structured light or other sophisticated sensors,” Bradley Lautenbach, Light’s senior vice president of marketing and product design, said in an email interview. “The hardware in our technology is much more cost-effective than the traditional approaches like Lidar, which have a hard time scaling because they are prohibitively expensive.”

Lautenbach added that the team knows there are serious challenges with various active optics solutions such as Lidar for robots and ADAS, particularly when it comes to issues of scale and cost.

“Affordability and accuracy are critical issues to consider when developing camera technology for autonomous vehicles, particularly when addressing scalability,” he wrote. “It is also important to create imaging technology that precisely sees the surroundings of the vehicle.”

Lautenbach explained the passive optics approach also works at a higher range of distances and consumes far less power than other approaches.

“We see the incorporation of passive optics to be the next evolution of imaging technology in self-driving vehicles, as these optics deliver autonomous perception to vehicles at a dramatically lower cost than Lidar,” he added.

While it is likely that camera sensors — indeed, sensors of all types — will continue to proliferate as more autonomous cars hit the road, Lidar will continue to play a key role in self-driving vehicles.

In the past two years, more than $800 million has been invested in Lidar companies. For example, Blackmore, founded in 2016, recently received $18 million from BMW and Toyota, while Quanergy, launched in 2012, received $180 million in funding in 2017.

A May report from the French research firm Yole Développement projects that the market for automotive Lidar would balloon from an estimated $325 million in 2017 to more than $5 billion in 2023, ratcheting up a rapid compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 60% for the period.

— Nathan Eddy is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter @dropdeaded209.

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