LIDAR Built On Familiar Platform

Moore’s law may have reached its physical limit for transistor density, but plenty of other technologies are still on that familiar path of getting smaller and smaller as time passes. It looks like LIDAR is no exception to this trend either. This project from [Owen] shows a fully-functional LIDAR system for about $20 and built almost entirely on top of an ESP32.

The build uses a Time-Of-Flight IR laser range sensor controlled by the ESP32, and the sensor is much smaller than even the ESP32’s footprint so it takes up very little extra space. To get it to function as a LIDAR system instead of just a simple rangefinder it does need a motor in order to rotate itself to see its entire space. Besides its small form factor and low cost, it also has a handy user interface that can run anywhere an HTML5 browser can run, making the use of the system easy and straightforward as well. All of the code is available on the project’s GitHub page.

We wouldn’t expect a system like this to be driving an autonomous car anytime soon, it’s update rate is far too slow, but its intent for small robots and even as an educational demo for learning LIDAR is second to none. If you do need a little more power in a LIDAR system but still don’t want to break the bank, we featured this impressive setup a few weeks ago.

LIDAR System Isn’t Just A Rangefinder Anymore

For any project there’s typically a trade-off between quality and cost,as higher quality parts, more features, or any number of aspects of a project can drive its price up. It seems as though [iliasam] has managed to avoid this paradigm entirely with his project. His new LIDAR system knocks it out of the park on accuracy, sampling, and quality, and somehow manages to only cost around $114 in parts.

A LIDAR system works by sending out many pulses of light in different directions, measuring the reflections of that light as it returns. LIDAR systems therefore improve with higher frequency pulses and faster control electronics for both the laser output and the receiving data. This system manages to be accurate to within a few centimeters and works up to 25 meters all while operating at 15 scans per second. The key was a high-powered laser module which can output up to 75 watts for extremely short times. More details can be found at this page (Google Translate from Russian).

Another bonus from this project is that [iliasam] has made everything available from his GitHub page including hardware specifications, so as long as you have a 3D printer this won’t take long to produce either. There’s even detailed breakdowns of how the laser driving circuitry works, and how there are safety features built in to keep anyone’s vision from accidentally getting damaged. Needless to say, this isn’t just a laser rangefinder module but if you want to see how you can repurpose those, [iliasam] can show you that as well.

Subterranean Uses For LIDAR: Cave Surveys

LIDAR has gained much popularity as a means for self-driving cars to survey the space around them. At their most basic, LIDAR is a surveying method that uses lasers to paints the space around the sensors and assembles the distances measured from reflected light into a digital three-dimensional representation. That’s something that has quite a number of other applications, from surveying ancient ruins and rainforests from a bird’s eye view to developing 3D models of indoor spaces.

One fascinating use of LIDAR technology is to map out the routes inside caves, subterranean spaces that are seldom accessed by humans apart from those with specialized equipment and knowledge of how to safely traverse the underground terrain. [caver.adam] has been working on his Open LIDAR project for a few years using an SF30-B High Speed Rangefinder and laser device for a dual-system atop a gimbal with stepper motors for cave scanning.

Originally an entry in the 2016 Hackaday Prize, [Adam] has continued to work on the project. The result shown in the video below is a cheaper 3D LIDAR setup that works by rotating the laser distance module on 2 axes with a sensor centered at the center of rotation. It works for volumetric calculations, detects change over time, and identifies various water patterns and rocks on a surface map. Compared to notebooks, tape measures, and compasses, it’s certainly a step up in cave surveying technology.

Check out some other past underground surveying projects, such as Iowa City’s beer caves scanning projects and National Geographic’s 2014 expedition of the Titan Chamber in southern Guizhou Province in China.

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When Will Our Cars Finally Speak The Same Language? DSRC For Vehicles

At the turn of the 21st century, it became pretty clear that even our cars wouldn’t escape the Digital Revolution. Years before anyone even uttered the term “smartphone”, it seemed obvious that automobiles would not only become increasingly computer-laden, but they’d need a way to communicate with each other and the world around them. After all, the potential gains would be enormous. Imagine if all the cars on the road could tell what their peers were doing?

Forget about rear-end collisions; a car slamming on the brakes would broadcast its intention to stop and trigger a response in the vehicle behind it before the human occupants even realized what was happening. On the highway, vehicles could synchronize their cruise control systems, creating “flocks” of cars that moved in unison and maintained a safe distance from each other. You’d never need to stop to pay a toll, as your vehicle’s computer would communicate with the toll booth and deduct the money directly from your bank account. All of this, and more, would one day be possible. But only if a special low-latency vehicle to vehicle communication protocol could be developed, and only if it was mandated that all new cars integrate the technology.

Except of course, that never happened. While modern cars are brimming with sensors and computing power just as predicted, they operate in isolation from the other vehicles on the road. Despite this, a well-equipped car rolling off the lot today is capable of all the tricks promised to us by car magazines circa 1998, and some that even the most breathless of publications would have considered too fantastic to publish. Faced with the challenge of building increasingly “smart” vehicles, manufacturers developed their own individual approaches that don’t rely on an omnipresent vehicle to vehicle communication network. The automotive industry has embraced technology like radar, LiDAR, and computer vision, things which back in the 1990s would have been tantamount to saying cars in the future would avoid traffic jams by simply flying over them.

In light of all these advancements, you might be surprised to find that the seemingly antiquated concept of vehicle to vehicle communication originally proposed decades ago hasn’t gone the way of the cassette tape. There’s still a push to implement Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC), a WiFi-derived protocol designed specifically for automotive applications which at this point has been a work in progress for over 20 years. Supporters believe DSRC still holds promise for reducing accidents, but opponents believe it’s a technology which has been superseded by more capable systems. To complicate matters, a valuable section of the radio spectrum reserved for DSRC by the Federal Communications Commission all the way back in 1999 still remains all but unused. So what exactly does DSRC offer, and do we really still need it as we approach the era of “self-driving” cars?

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Open Source LIDAR Lets You Get Down To The Nitty Gritty

If you’re unfamiliar with LIDAR, you might have noticed it sounds a bit like radar. That’s no accident – LIDAR is a backronym standing for “light detection and ranging”, the word having initially been created as a combination of “light” and “radar”. The average person is most likely to have come into contact with LIDAR at the business end of a police speed trap, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Unruly is the open source LIDAR project you’ve been waiting for all along.

Unlike a lot of starter projects, LIDAR isn’t something you get into with a couple of salvaged LEDs and an Arduino Uno. We’re talking about measuring the time it takes light to travel relatively short distances, so plenty of specialised components are required. There’s a pulsed laser diode, and a special hypersensitive avalanche photodiode that operates at up to 130 V. These are combined with precision lenses and filters to ensure operation at the maximum range possible. Given that light can travel 300,000 km in a second, to get any usable resolution, a microcontroller alone simply isn’t fast enough to cut it here. A specialized  time-to-digital converter (TDC) is used to time how long it takes the light pulse to return from a distant object. Unruly’s current usable resolution is somewhere in the ballpark of 10 mm – an impressive feat.

It’s a complicated project, requiring the utmost attention to detail to get any results at all. The team behind Unruly have done a great job of both designing and documenting the project. It’s great to see an open source LIDAR package in the wild, giving hackers more options than just the pre-baked commercial modules on the market. We can’t wait to see where the project goes next.

For more on LIDAR, check out last week’s Hackaday podcast – we cover Unruly, as well as a handful of other standout projects in the field.

Hackaday Podcast Ep3 – Igloos, Lidar, And The Blinking LED Of RF Hacking

It’s cold outside! So grab a copy of the Hackaday Podcast, and catch up on what you missed this week.

Highlights include a dip into audio processing with sox and FFMPEG, scripting for Gmail, weaving your own carbon fiber tubes, staring into the sharpest color CRT ever, and unlocking the secrets of cheap 433 MHz devices. Plus Elliot talks about his follies in building an igloo while Mike marvels at what’s coming out of passive RFID sensor research.

And what’s that strange noise at the end of the podcast?

Direct Download (59.2 MB MP3)

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New Part Day: Small, Cheap, And Good LIDAR Modules

Fully autonomous cars might never pan out, but in the meantime we’re getting some really cool hardware designed for robotic taxicab prototypes. This is the Livox Mid-40 Lidar, a LIDAR module you can put on your car or drone. The best part? It only costs $600 USD.

The Livox Mid-40 and Mid-100 are two modules released by Livox, and the specs are impressive: the Mid-40 is able to scan 100,000 points per second at a detection range of 90 m with objects of 10% reflectivity. The Mid-40 sensor weighs 710 grams and comes in a package that is only 88 mm x 69 mm x 76 mm. The Mid-100 is basically the guts of three Mid-40 sensors stuffed into a larger enclosure, capable of 300,000 points per second, with a FOV of 98.4° by 38.4°.

The use case for these sensors is autonomous cars, (large) drones, search and rescue, and high-precision mapping. These units are a bit too large for a skateboard-sized DIY Robot Car, but a single Livox Mid-40 sensor, pointed downward on a reasonably sized drone could perform aerial mapping

There is one downside to the Livox Mid sensors — while you can buy them direct from the DJI web site, they’re not in production. These sensors are only, ‘Mass-Production ready’. This might be just Livox testing the market before ramping up production, a thinly-veiled press release, or something else entirely. That said, you can now buy a relatively cheap LIDAR module that’s actually really good.