For cars to drive autonomously, they need to recognize their surroundings and especially the distance to other objects. For that purpose, most development work on autonomous vehicles now relies on a laser-based sensor technology known as lidar. The problem: Existing lidar devices have proved to be either too expensive or insufficiently precise for mass production. That is because the laser must continuously scan a wide area. Until now, this has required a relatively large and mechanically complex system with numerous moving parts to point the laser in multiple directions.
A team of scientists and graduates of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has now developed a lidar sensor that combines high performance with much more affordable production costs. The sensor uses silicon to create a mirror with a complex microstructure that can cover a wide field of view. "That eliminates the need for the complex structures of conventional systems," says robotics expert Dr. Florian Petit.
Sensors in headlights and rear-view mirrors
Blickfeld is the name of the start-up launched at TUM in 2017 by Petit together with the measurement systems researcher Dr. Mathias Müller and the computer scientist Rolf Wojtech. Their technology has other advantages: The compact unit fits easily into headlights or rear-view mirrors, for example. Because it has very few mechanical components, it is also more robust than previous lidar technologies. And despite the high-tech methods involved, these so-called MEMS mirrors are simple to produce.
The team was supported by the TUM start-up advising service, with mentorship provided under an EXIST grant by Prof. Alexander Koch of the Chair for Measurement Systems and Sensor Technology, where co-founder Mathias Müller is working on his habilitation. The venture capital fund of UnternehmerTUM, the Center for Innovation and Business Creation at TUM, invested in the new company along with a consortium. The founders had the opportunity to network with potential customers through the Digital Hub Mobility of the German federal government, which is located at UnternehmerTUM.
Other applications in robots and drones
Blickfeld has filed more than 30 patent applications and already has approximately 70 employees. "The automotive industry is very interested," says Florian Petit. "We're currently working with several automotive suppliers, including the global market leader for headlights. We're aiming to go into series production in 2023."
The potential use cases for lidar sensors aren’t limited to the automotive industry. They can be useful in all technologies that need to be aware of their surroundings, such as robots, transport drones and automated logistics systems.
TUM accounts for five of 10 finalists
The Blickfeld business model also impressed the "Start me up!" jury, chaired by Silicon Valley investor Andreas von Bechtolsheim. Around 300 start-ups entered the competition, hosted by the Bilanz business magazine in cooperation with three companies: Daimler, HanseMerkur and ProSiebenSat1 Media. With 100,000 euros in prize money, "Start me up!" is the most richly endowed award of its kind in Germany.
The 10 finalists included four other start-ups with roots in TUM: Hawa Dawa offers a system for measuring air quality and Isar Aerospace Technologies produces launch vehicles for small satellites. Kiutra has developed a magnet technology for cooling quantum computers and Social Bee, a job agency formed as a social entrepreneurship start-up, brings together job-seeking refugees with potential employers.
TUM and UnternehmerTUM support start-ups with programs tailored to exactly fit the individual phases of the founding process, from creating a business model concept to management training, from market entry all the way to a potential IPO. As many as 30 teams can use office space in the “TUM Incubator" to prepare the launch of their own companies. TUM goes to Silicon Valley with the most promising teams for two weeks. UnternehmerTUM operates its own venture capital fund and offers a 1,500 square meter high-tech workshop for prototyping in the "MakerSpace" and a biotechnology laboratory for experiments in the "Bio.Kitchen". This support is the best one among the major German universities according to the "Start-up Radar". Every year more than 70 technology-based companies are founded at TUM.
"Start me up!" (German website)