Over half a century following its inception, Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) has risen to prominence within multiple industries and technical applications. Perhaps nowhere more visible than with NASA and lidar success stories on various missions over the past 50 years.
From an article in All About Circuits by Tyler Charboneau.
The technology, while suitable for unique purposes, has even been hailed as a successor to radar. Although LiDAR technology had been steadily progressing recently, moving from huge and bulky to more streamlined, it has a long history, but how did it become a staple technology for autonomous driving?
LiDAR’s Geological Debut
In the decades following World War II, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) focused on automating the surveying process. New technologies met aerial photography, and soon laser technology unlocked yet another efficiency level behind large-scale mapping.
Accordingly, LiDAR opened the door for rapid terrain imaging, which matured even more throughout the 70s. Remote, laser-based sensing enabled aircraft to map oceans, ice sheets, and forests.
Laser scanning was also pivotal in producing 3D images of lunar surfaces during the Apollo missions.
Apollo 15 through 17 employed a form of LiDAR reliant on a “flashlamp-pumped ruby laser,” according to NASA. This method had a low pulse frequency of 3.75 per minute and relied on mechanical parts to function. The project was dubbed the Laser Altimeter Experiment.
Surprisingly, the LiDAR acronym originally existed as a blend between “light” and “radar.” The concept and name eventually morphed into the current form. It’s also known as Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging.
The first decade for LiDAR was mainly trying to find its footing, but once the 80s approached, LiDAR started to take shape fully.
The Advent of Next-Generation LiDAR
The 80s constituted a significant step forward for LiDAR technology mainly because of the arrival of solid-state technology, with motors and gears yielding to systems on chip (SoCs). That modern, compact packaging assumed control of its laser systems to scan a scene. Naturally, the advent of the semiconductor helped these LiDAR systems shrink in size.
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