Advances in LiDAR systems signal a shift towards the future

Wade Appelman
Wade Appelman, Vice-President of the SensL Division of ON Semiconductor

We caught up with Wade Appelman, Vice-President of the SensL Division of ON Semiconductor, as he returns from a successful week at CES. Having been a proud part of the AutoSens family since the beginning, we find out about their developments in SPAD technology and what 2020 holds for ON Semiconductor.

We’re talking to you as the dust is settling on a busy week in Vegas, at CES, how was the show for ON Semiconductor? Which of your demonstrations were you proudest to showcase?

ON Semiconductor had a very successful CES 2020. Our exhibit showcased solutions from across the company including demonstrations of our image sensors, radar, and LiDAR products from the Intelligent Sensing Group. For the LiDAR and Depth Sensing portion, we were proud to again showcase Pandion, the world’s first high-resolution commercially available SPAD array for time-of-flight applications, which we first announced at AutoSens in Detroit 2019. At CES, we showed the capability of Pandion in a LiDAR system with 4D imaging output: a 3D point cloud provided simultaneously with an intensity image (similar to what you’d get from a monochrome camera). This is a powerful feature enabling autonomous perception algorithms to take advantage of depth and imaging data coming from the same sensor, whose SPAD pixels each capture time-of-flight and intensity data at the same time.

Your SPAD-based silicon photomultiplier (SiPM) technology enabled a number of other demonstrations at CES, including the CES Innovation Award-winning RS-LiDAR-M1 from RoboSense, why is the SiPM technology the detector of choice for so many LiDAR sensor manufacturers?

SiPMs have key advantages over legacy detectors like avalanche photodiodes, which were prominently used in previous generations of LiDAR sensors. They provide a gain on the order of a million which means that the response to a single photon is easily detectable without complex readout electronics, allowing the system to achieve a higher signal-to-noise ratio and ultimately detect low reflectivity objects at longer range. The high gain and sensitivity also means that SiPMs can be used with smaller form factor optics which allows for better integration into vehicles. As pioneers of SiPM technology, we’ve been advocating these advantages to the market for several years and showing how they can be used in LiDAR systems to achieve better performance. What we’re seeing now is the first wave of LiDAR sensor designs based on SiPMs that are ready to go to production, signaling a shift for the future.

Another announcement made at CES was your MoU signing with SOS Lab, who we are very familiar with at AutoSens, having featured them as one of the start-ups in our starting grid. Can you comment any further on the aims of this agreement and what it means for ON Semiconductor and LiDAR?

As a recognised leading supplier of SPAD-based detectors in addition to other key LiDAR components, ON Semiconductor can be the bridge between partners and end customers to accelerate product time-to-market. The announcement of the signing of the MoU between us and SOS Lab is part of our new LiDAR Partners Program that facilitates these engagements across the industry. By building reference designs and demonstration systems, we have built expertise on using SiPMs and SPAD image sensors in a LiDAR system, having worked with many ecosystem partners including other semiconductor suppliers as well as LiDAR module manufacturers.

The LiDAR Partners Program offers opportunities for LiDAR module manufacturers to benefit from our expertise, reference designs, and component partner ecosystem when designing LiDAR solutions. It also enables end customers to be connected to these LiDAR module suppliers because we can leverage our worldwide sales force to promote the partner solutions based on our detectors to the industry, making it a win-win for all involved. While we are in the first phase of the program’s launch with the initial announcements having been made at CES, you can expect to see more in the coming months as our LiDAR module customers take their sensors to production.

Was there any other news at CES from others in the industry that surprised your team or got you particularly excited for the future?

We continue be pleased to see that LiDAR systems are progressing from “lab demos” to real systems going into production. At CES we saw exciting demos from partners including MicroVision, Blickfeld, RoboSense, and SOS Lab. There were also several other LiDAR companies showing tremendous performance in their booths with SiPMs inside from ON Semiconductor. We are excited to announce these relationships in the near future. Also, the NIR spectrum wavelength of 905nm was the dominate approach for direct ToF LiDAR systems as it leads in terms of providing the best price/performance mix. We think this will be key to get the cost of LiDAR down by 2023 when we will start to see a real increase in L3 autonomous vehicles.

When we last spoke you mentioned that you were building on the success of improving the detection efficiencies of your SiPM sensors and working towards a next-gen, high resolution, SPAD-based TOF image sensor chip for 3D ranging. Are you able to share how this is developing?

We actually unveiled our Ruby SiPM family at CES, which is a series of automotive-qualified red-sensitive SiPM detectors with market-leading photon detection efficiency (PDE) of 15% at 905nm. We are not stopping there and will continue to make advancements to double the PDE in the next two years. Similarly, while we’ve announced Pandion, it’s just the first of our family of high-resolution SPAD arrays. We will be developing next-generation SPAD array time-of-flight image sensors with higher detection efficiency and more functionality and integration.

What does the next 6 months hold for ON Semiconductor?

Automotive qualification takes tremendous effort and time. We have brought out a number of new devices recently and completing PPAP certification is a top focus of the team. We are also keen to highlight partner solutions who have embraced our SPAD and SiPM technology as way to support our OEM customers, for improved time-to-market with a high-quality sensor that meets automotive requirements.

Can we look forward to any announcements at AutoSens in Detroit this May?

AutoSens is a fun place to announce new products and initiatives. Stay tuned for more customer announcements for SOP OEM vehicles and our focus on new products for sensor fusion and depth sensing.

Head along to AutoSens in Detroit this May and see what ON Semiconductor will be announcing. Book your tickets here >>