A technology first developed to assist the U.S. military in spotting enemies sneaking past battlefield perimeters could soon help self-driving vehicles create detailed portraits of their surroundings.
From its roots in supplying the Army, Air Force and Marines with lidar sensors used for monitoring territory, Blackmore, an imaging company based in Bozeman, Mont., has spent the past two years refining its technology for use in autonomous vehicles.
Blackmore is hardly alone in that pursuit — industry experts are tracking at least 60 lidar companies all vying for business as automakers and major suppliers formulate production plans for autonomous-driving systems. Sensors that create a high-definition depiction of the road ahead are a critical part of those systems.
Amid that crowded field, Blackmore stands out for an unconventional approach its founders say results in a key advantage.
In addition to providing detailed information on the distance to objects, the company's technology can also measure the velocity of those objects, information that conventional lidar companies usually cannot provide. For autonomous vehicles attempting to make sense of their road environment and plot a course ahead, that insight on the speed of other actors in the space can be critical.
Competitors downplay the potential advantage of Blackmore's approach, though, saying it involves making tradeoffs in range, cost and complexity.
Though their prices are collectively falling, lidar units are expensive, ranging from $1,000 a unit to more than $100,000 for sensors the size of a hockey puck. So wringing more information from them helps justify their cost.