Self-driving systems company Aurora Innovation placed a big bet Thursday on a lidar company that has taken an unconventional approach to developing its technology.
Aurora intends to acquire Blackmore Sensors and Analytics Inc., a company in Bozeman, Mont., that has roots supporting the U.S. military with its sensors, the company announced.
Terms were not immediately disclosed.
Lidar units are laser sensors that help autonomous vehicles detect obstacles and locate themselves on the road. Some high-profile industry executives -- namely Tesla's Elon Musk -- have argued these sensors are not necessary for self-driving operations. But if the Blackmore acquisition didn't speak for itself, Chris Urmson, co-founder of Aurora and former head of Google's self-driving vehicle project, offered a rebuttal.
"Lidar is critical for developing the safest and most reliable self-driving system, one that can navigate our roads more safely than a human driver," he said Thursday.
There are dozens of lidar companies, but Blackmore stands out for an unusual approach to developing the technology. Rather than sending pulsed light waves from its sensors like the majority of its competition, it utilizes a continuous wave and modulates the frequency to gain detailed information on the distance of targets.
Most companies modulate the amplitude of the waves, not the frequency. It's technically akin to a choice between AM and FM radio.
Blackmore says its FM-based approach results in a key advantage: It can measure the Doppler effect of velocity of detected objects, collecting enough information to show tires rotating on vehicles 200 yards away as well as granular depictions of the arms and legs of pedestrians.
"We can essentially use a dim flashlight to see far away," Randy Reibel, Blackmore CEO, said at CES in Las Vegas in January. "I don't have to worry about eye safety issues. I don't have electrical power issues. Being single-photon sensitive is king in this industry, and not many people have it."
Blackmore's office in Bozeman will function as Aurora's fourth office. The company already has offices in San Francisco; Palo Alto, Calif.; and Pittsburgh.
Aurora's other co-founders are Sterling Anderson, former chief program manager of Tesla's Model X and director of the Autopilot program, and Drew Bagnell, who was previously autonomy architect and perception lead at the Uber Advanced Technologies Group Center.
Aurora closed a $530 million Series B investment funding round in February, and has partnerships ongoing with Volkswagen Group, Hyundai Motor Co. and Byton.