Nov. 28, 2017

LightCounting Releases a Research Note on the AVFOP Conference

The first AVFOP conference was held in 2004, due to interest from the U.S. government as well as industry to hold a fiber optics and photonics event focused on avionics. Since then, fiber optics and photonics technologies have seen increasing deployment in military and commercial platforms, due to the significant advantages that fiber offers in terms of data rates, range, reduction in size, weight, and power (SWaP) - as well as immunity to electromagnetic interference. Electro-optic components are now available in a wide frequency range from DC to 100GHz. Fiber optics penetration will continue to grow as data requirements increase with the number of sensors, autonomous controls, and infotainment systems in mobile platforms. The conference presentations over three days in November in New Orleans covered the gamut from solutions to solve radio frequency (RF) challenges, optical component development and electronic-photonic integration - to technologies for application domains such as radar and Lidar.

Some of the specific RF solutions discussed were Photonics to mitigate RF interference, Imaging of the RF environment using coherent optical processing, and Photonics for RF distribution and remoting. Different electronic-photonic integration techniques were described such as Wire bonding, Flip-chip integration, Wafer-scale 3D integration, as well as Monolithic integration. Optical upconverters for simultaneous beam imaging radar, as well as novel architectures that combine the advantages of Flash and Scanning Lidar were presented.

The CEO of the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics (AIM) gave an update on AIM’s objective to translate the successes of the electronics industry to the photonics industry, the status of photonic integrated circuit design, and listed High-performance computing, military/aero/scientific, and data centers as the earliest possible adopters of Silicon Photonics - followed by consumer, medical and telecom. In another interesting presentation at the conference, the speaker brought up the heightened interest in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Neuromorphic computing, and how 3D compute chip implementations would be necessary, with all-to-all chip interconnect through optical wavelength routing.

The AVFOP conference offered a rare opportunity to hear about advanced research and innovations happening in government and defense, and to chat one-on-one with scientists and developers.

Innovations in these application areas often become commercially available technology, after they have been optimized for lower cost and mass-manufacturing. Government organizations such as DARPA were responsible for creating the first network of computers (ARPANET) that eventually led to today’s Internet and World Wide Web, for developing the TRANSIT satellite navigation system which was a predecessor to today’s GPS, and for decades of investment in robotics that is emerging today in technologies for autonomous vehicles. These innovations have changed the way we communicate, travel, and work.

LightCounting will take a deeper look at topics such as sensing and Lidar in 2018, and will offer market intelligence for companies looking to invest in these areas.

3D Sensing for Self-Driving Cars Reaches the Peak of Inflated Expectations

LightCounting releases a new report addressing illumination in smartphones and automotive lidarIn 2019, the market for VCSEL (vertical cavity surface-emitting laser) illumination in smartphones will exceed $1.0 billion – now nearly triple the size of the market for communications VCSELs. That’s quite remarkable for a market that didn’t exist three years ago.3D sensing in smartphones felt like an overnight sensation, but the technology foundations were laid down years ago with Microsoft’s Kinect – a motion-sensing peripheral for gamers released in 2010 but discontinued in 2017 after lackluster sales. Lumentum supplied lasers to the Kinect almost a decade before the iPhone opportunity emerged; the company was ready to profit from the iPhone X opportunity when Apple decided to launch 3D sensing for facial recognition in September 2017.

Figure: 3D depth-sensing meets the Gartner Hype Cycle

3D Sensing

Source: Gartner with edits by LightCounting

If all technologies follow the Gartner Hype Cycle, shown in the Figure above, then 3D sensing in smartphones is now moving up the slope of enlightenment. Android brands raced to add 3D sensing to their flagship phones in 2018 – the Xiaomi Mi8 Explorer and Oppo Find X phones were first – although these only sold in single digit million quantities. Huawei also brought out new phones with 3D sensing, but the ongoing U.S. export ban on the Chinese company must be hurting the company’s traction outside China. Apple continues to dominate the market as all new iPhones released by Apple since 2017 have included 3D sensing on the front of the phone. Apple is expected to introduce 3D sensing for ‘world-facing’ applications in 2020, which adds another laser chip to every phone.

Last year illumination for lidars were not included in our market forecast since LightCounting considered it unlikely that lidar would penetrate the consumer market to any great extent over the forecast period. All indicators now point to a market for lidar illumination ramping up in 2022 and beyond. Optical components firms are now shipping prototypes and samples of VCSELs, edge emitters and coherent lasers to customers developing next-generation lidar systems – many of them building on their expertise in illumination for optical communications and smartphones.

As was the case with smartphones, the foundations for lidar technology were laid down much earlier – in this case with the DARPA Challenge 2007, where the winning vehicle used a 64-laser lidar system from Velodyne Acoustics (now Velodyne Lidar). Lidar is considered by the majority of the industry to be an essential part of the sensor suite required for autonomous driving, helping the vehicle to navigate through the environment and detect obstacles in its path. The first commercial deployments have begun. In Germany, lidar on the Audi A8 enables the car to drive itself for limited periods under specific conditions. In Phoenix, Arizona, you can hail a ride in a Waymo robotaxi.

Investor enthusiasm for lidar is undeniable with nearly half a billion dollars invested in lidar start-ups in 2019 according to our analysis of publicly available investment data. Notable deals include $60 million for U.S. company Ouster in March, Israel’s Innoviz Technologies Series C round of $132 million in the same month, and $100 million for U.S.-based Luminar Technologies in July. Interestingly, these examples illustrate the variety of lidar approaches: each company is building a different type of lidar based on a different wavelength: 850nm for Ouster, 905nm for Innoviz and 1550nm in the case of Luminar. There’s an open technology battle and they can’t all be winners.

The automotive lidar market seems to be close to the peak of ‘inflated expectations’. It’s easy to understand why. The automotive industry is enormous, with nearly 100 million vehicles (including trucks) produced annually. Players like Baidu, GM Cruise and Waymo are backed by deep corporate pockets, and new entrants like Aurora and are attracting hundreds of millions in investment. Intel’s $15.3 billion purchase of Mobileye in 2017 was also directed at autonomous driving. Sensor company AMS is in a $4.8 billion battle to acquire German semiconductor lighting firm Osram with its eye firmly on lidar.

However, signs indicate that the descent into the trough of disillusionment could have already begun. Waymo has yet to roll out its robotaxi services more widely – and this summer admitted that its vehicles needed more testing in the rain. GM Cruise has delayed launch of commercial services for self-driving cars beyond 2019 and is reluctant to commit to a new timescale, with its CEO Dan Ammann observing that safety is paramount; automotive is not an industry where you can “move fast and break things” he said. A casualty of the slow pace was optical phased array lidar developer Oryx Vision, which closed its doors in August and started to hand money back to investors.

While lidar is being deployed commercially today, prices are not conducive to mass production, and there are open questions around regulation, safety, ethics and consumer acceptance. Do local laws prohibit self-driving cars? Will they really be safer than humans? Who is responsible for a crash? LightCounting remains skeptical about the pace of adoption of autonomous vehicles, but will be watching the market closely and with optimism.

More information on the report is available at:

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