Self-driving car startup Aurora acquires Blackmore for Doppler lidar tech

Self-driving car startup Aurora acquires Blackmore for Doppler lidar tech

Source: Aurora Innovation

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Aurora Innovation Inc. this week said that it is buying Bozeman, Mont.-based Blackmore Sensors and Analytics Inc. It did not disclose the financial terms of the acquisition.

Aurora‘s three co-founders have previous experience in developing autonomous vehicles. CEO Chris Urmson previously led Google LLC’s self-driving efforts and departed before Alphabet Inc. spun off Waymo LLC. Chief Product Officer Sterling Anderson came out of Tesla Inc., and Chief Technical Officer Drew Bagnell has worked with the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute and Uber Technologies Inc.

Two-year-old Blackmore said it is a leader in developing compact, robust, and cost-efficient lidar, as well as supporting analytic tools and software. It said its sensors can measure radial velocity on every data point, effectively Doppler lidar.

In February, Aurora raised $530 million in a Series B round led by Sequoia Capital, with participation from Inc. In March 2018, Blackmore raised $18 million in Series B funding led by BMW i Ventures and including Toyota AI Ventures.

Blackmore said its 70 staffers will remain in Montana.

Note: Kyle Vogt, CEO of self-driving car company Cruise, will deliver a keynote at the Robotics Summit & Expo, which will be in Boston on June 5-6. Register now to attend.

Lidar debate

Unlike Tesla Inc. founder Elon Musk, who has said, “Lidar is a fool’s errand,” claiming that “expensive sensors are unnecessary,” Aurora stated that it believes multiple sensors are needed for safe navigation. Tesla and some other autonomous vehicle developers such as Nissan Motor Co. have said that cheaper optical cameras are sufficient. Others, such as Waymo, are making and offering their own lidar systems.

“We’ve long said that the safest approach to building self-driving technology is by using different sensor modalities  —  cameras, radar, and of course, lidar,” said Aurora. “Different sensor modalities have different strengths and weaknesses; thus, incorporating multiple modalities drives dramatic improvements in the reliability of the system. Based on our decades of industry experience, we’re clear that lidar, specifically with the advancements Blackmore has made, is part of the ultimate sensing system.”

Aurora noted that Blackmore has been a pioneer in frequency modulated continuous wave (FMCW) lidar that minimize interference. Blackmore claims to be the first company to offer commercial FMCW sensors.

“Blackmore starts with photonic hardware proven in the optical fiber communications industry,” the company said. “Signal processing then maximizes FMCW’s advantages of high dynamic range, single photon sensitivity, and interference immunity  —  technical jargon that translates into real safety margin, chip-level scalability, and all-weather performance.”

Lidar leader Velodyne recently partnered with Nikon to mass-produce sensors and lower their price.

Altering perception

In addition to making the autonomous Driver safer and more affordable, Blackmore’s technology could help it “rewrite perception in robotics,” said Aurora. Rather than focus on hardware, as others are, the company said it is building a “full stack” for autonomous vehicles.

Aurora is working with Byton Co., Hyundai Motor Co., and Volkswagen AG, and it rejected a takeover offer from Volkswagen last year, according to Bloomberg. Aurora also acquired 7D Labs earlier this year, reported TechCrunch.

Aurora’s transaction is just the latest in a wave of investments and acquisitions among component technology providers and vehicle makers around self-driving cars. For instance, General Motors’ Cruise unit raised $1.15 billion earlier this month.