How Lumotive will put metamaterials in self-driving cars, with Bill Gates’ backing

How Lumotive will put metamaterials in self-driving cars, with Bill Gates’ backing

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Lumotive’s co-founders, CEO William Colleran and CTO Gleb Akselrod, show off a printed-circuit wafer that’s part of their “secret sauce” for next-generation lidar detectors. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — A succession of spinouts supported by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has taken an unorthodox technology known as metamaterials to high-flying realms ranging from satellite communications to drone-sized radar systems — but the latest metamaterials venture to come out of stealth is aiming for a more down-to-earth frontier: the car that will someday be driving you.

Like Kymeta, Echodyne, Evolv and Pivotal Commware, Lumotive takes advantage of electronic circuits that are able to shift the focus and path of electromagnetic waves without moving parts. Unlike those other Seattle-area companies, Lumotive is using those metamaterials to steer laser light instead of radio waves.

“It’s always been kind of a Holy Grail of metamaterials to figure out how you can do that at optical wavelengths,” Lumotive’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Gleb Akselrod, told GeekWire this week.

To do it, Lumotive has created what Akselrod calls a “secret sauce” of liquid crystal sandwiched with printed silicon circuits. The company’s chips have tiny tunable antennas that can sweep laser light across a 120-degree field, and read what’s reflected to build up a map of its surroundings up to 20 times a second.

The cracker-sized chips are tailor-made to fit into laser-scanning gadgets known as lidars, which are one of the tools of the trade used in self-driving cars for situational awareness.

Today’s lidar systems are bulky contraptions that typically cost tens of thousands of dollars and sit on top of the first-generation autonomous vehicles fielded by the likes of Waymo and Cruise. Bringing down the cost and size of those lidars is a high priority for most self-driving cars. (Tesla, however, has opted to go lidar-less and rely instead on radar systems, cameras and the cloud.)

Lumotive’s prototype lidar device looks like 6-inch-wide jewelry box, and could conceivably be built into a car’s bumper or rear-view mirror. Unlike first-generation lidars, there are no moving parts that swing around to do a scan. And the gadgets could end up costing a lot less than today’s lidar systems.

“Today’s systems are so expensive because it’s basically like making a Swiss watch. They’re very intricate mechanical systems,” Lumotive co-founder and CEO William Colleran explained. “Ours is more like consumer electronics. When lidar becomes mature — which is, I don’t know, five, six, eight years from now — when the volumes are high, I think these systems will come in at a few hundred dollars. In the meantime, we still have cost advantages over other approaches.”

190327-colleran-630x467.jpgLumotive CEO William Colleran shows of the guts of a prototype lidar device incorporating metamaterials. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Colleran, who’s previously served as CEO at ventures including Impinj and AnswerDash, said Lumotive is pursuing a step-by-step plan to catch the rising tide.

Like the other metamaterials spinouts, Lumotive got its start at Bellevue-based Intellectual Ventures, which has been methodically mining applications of the technology for almost a decade. The startup struck out on its own in late 2017 with an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Gates, and it’s now in the midst of a Series A funding round.

Lumotive plans to have an initial working prototype ready to show to potential customers later this year, with more refined prototypes and the first commercial products rolling out by the end of 2020.

Colleran said the first automotive customers are likely to use high-performance lidar devices in “robo-taxis,” his term for the fleets of autonomous vehicles that Uber, Waymo and Cruise intend to use in rideshare operations. But those won’t be the only customers.

“While we’re developing this primarily for automotive, there are some other markets along the way — for example, drones, robots, industrial automation — that can all benefit from this ability to have a 3-D sense of their surroundings,” he said. “Those don’t require automotive qualification, so obviously you can go to market much faster. We anticipate generating revenue starting late next year.”

190327-gleb-630x420.jpgLumotive’s chief technology officer, Gleb Akselrod, says chip design is part of the “secret sauce” for the startup’s next-generation lidar devices. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

In the longer term, lower-cost lidar systems should become available for less intensive automotive applications such as advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS, which can help human drivers with collision avoidance, adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane-centering and other semi-autonomous tasks.

Colleran said Lumotive currently has 14 employees, but he expects to add significantly to that workforce in the months ahead.

The metamaterials revolution got its start more than a decade ago in places like Duke University, but thanks in part to Intellectual Ventures’ succession of spinouts, the Pacific Northwest is becoming home to more and more metamaterials mavens.

“It’s nice to have a community here in Seattle of people who have solved similar technical problems,” said Akselrod, who was a postdoctoral researcher at Duke before coming to Bellevue in 2016. “That’s unique to have this kind of tight technology community forming around metamaterials.”

Through the decades, the Seattle area’s tech frontiers have earned it nicknames like Jet City and Cloud City. Maybe it’s time to add Metamaterials City to the list.

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