• Even lush forest canopies could became effectively transparent with a future generation of light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technologies. Source: Shutterstock/DARPA
     Even lush forest canopies could became effectively transparent with a future generation of light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technologies. Source: Shutterstock/DARPA

DARPA Wants to 'Pancake' LiDAR Technologies

December 9, 2015
By Sandra Jontz
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The Defense Department’s primary research agency seeks flat optics that could revolutionize a number of industries, from surveillance technologies to how autonomous systems sense obstacles in their surroundings, to name a few.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, put out a call for “pancaking the telescope” when it announced its Modular Optical Aperture Building Blocks (MOABB) program. That’s fancy speak for its challenge to create ultra-compact, light detection and ranging (LiDAR) systems that would be flat, lightweight, easily transportable and inexpensive, the agency states.

LiDAR systems use light beams to precisely monitor the timing of reflections to then create high-resolution maps and track objects. While the basic technology exists, it’s big, bulky and expensive. Instead, DARPA is launching its $58 million, potentially five-year program to create technology that researchers indicate they envision would “consist of an array of 10,000 light-emitting and light–detecting semiconductor dots distributed on a disk about the size of a DVD.”

“You would be able to fly a MOABB-enabled helicopter or drone low over a lush forest canopy and be able to effectively peel back the leaves and see a sniper or a tank underneath,” explains DARPA program manager Joshua Conway. “It could instantaneously give you the range and velocity of everything up to a football field’s distance away with the resolution of a camera.”

Other potential uses include collision avoidance systems for small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying in tight indoor spaces, precision motor control for robotic limbs or high-capacity light-based communications and data-transfer systems. “Every machine that interacts with the 3-D world—whether it is a manufacturing robot, UAV, car, or smartphone—could have a chip- or wafer-scale LiDAR on it,” Conway says.

DARPA plans to post a broad agency announcement of the MOAAB project later this month on FedBizOpps, and host a proposers day event at DARPA headquarters in Virginia on December 17.

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