Keeping An Eye Out For Forward Guidance

Jon Lawson

Optical sensors are key components in vehicle autonomy. Saloni Walimbe examines how the market will expand in the near future

In the burgeoning era of Industry 4.0, the IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), connected devices and other smart technologies are making their presence felt on a global scale. With investments of over US$15 trillion in IIoT expected from companies by 2025, according to Gigabyte estimates, smart technologies are well placed to trigger a massive revolution across various sectors in the industrial world. 

Critical to this change are sensing technologies, particularly optical sensors, which are an essential component in an optimal connectivity network. According to Global Market Insights research, the optical sensor market is projected to surpass US$30 billion by 2026, given the prominent role the technology plays in the functioning of IIoT solutions driving efficiency in industrial operations.

Due to industrial working conditions being extremely diverse, smart optical sensors also play a major part in mitigating risks while simultaneously providing value. This was especially evident during the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has created a prolific demand for sensing technologies such as temperature monitoring in sensitive and high-priority applications such as storage of COVID-19 vaccines.

What This Means For Vehicles

The automotive sector is set to emerge as a key end-user for optical sensing technology in the imminent self-driving vehicle era. Massive transitions got underway in the automotive domain in recent years, as the industry continues its transition into the digital domain, making it a poster child for optical sensor technology. The impending shift towards autonomy especially is a major indicator of this transition at present; manufacturers have already started production of Level 3 autonomous cars and have Level 4 vehicles in the pipeline.

For instance, in August 2021, Germany announced its intention to bring SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) Level 4 autonomous vehicles into regular operation starting in 2022, following lawmakers’ approval of a new autonomous driving law. Moves like these have triggered actions from major automakers such as Geely, which announced a collaboration with Mobileye to introduce the first consumer autonomous vehicle equipped with Level 4 ADAS by 2024.

Considering the importance of safety and security in autonomous vehicle development, optical sensors – in the form of LIDAR, radar systems and cameras – are rapidly emerging as essential components in various ADAS applications including blind-spot detection, cruise control and reverse assistance, among others. In essence, optical sensing technologies are playing an increasingly prominent role in making the concept of fully autonomous vehicles a reality.

Technology entities worldwide have taken heed of this development and are focusing on bringing advanced automotive optical sensor technology to market. A notable example of this is Baraja, which inked an R&D collaboration with autonomous driving leader Tier IV for a new software-defined sensor suite designed for autonomous vehicles. This collaboration, which brought together Baraja’s Spectrum-Scan LIDAR technology with Tier IV’s HDR cameras and sensor fusion software, was geared towards creating a richer and more accurate image of the physical world to enable self-driving cars to make faster and better real-time decisions.

Military applications will gain strong benefits from adaptive optical sensors in the future. While nearly every industrial sector in the modern era has used optical sensing in some capacity, it is still a relatively new concept among technologies that are still in developmental stages. In the military sector, for instance, directed-energy (DE) weapons are being increasingly hailed as the weapons of the future, and are being explored extensively by nations vying for military advantage.

High-energy lasers, in particular, are among the most promising DE weapons being tested in various countries, creating ample opportunities for optical sensor industry growth, especially from the image sensor segment, which is set to register an 11% CAGR through 2026, as per GMI estimates.

The United Kingdom is an example of this: in October 2021, the nation’s military commenced testing for a new high-energy laser weapon system (HELWS) from Raytheon Technologies, designed to eliminate rogue drones with the help of high-precision sensing technologies for better accuracy. The DE weapon system, which involved the embedding of a laser in an EO-IT (electro-optical and infrared sensor), is a testament to the nation’s plan to invest almost US$9 million in R&D for the development of high-precision weaponry for its armed forces over the next four years.

The ability of adaptive optical sensors to enhance image resolution in HEL (high energy laser) systems is also a major reason why optical sensing technology is gaining popularity. In recognition of this, in March 2021, Intevac Photonics announced that it had been awarded a development contract worth almost US$1.8 million from the US Government’s Joint Directed Energy Transition Office. As part of this contract, the firm was tasked with developing a Gated SWIR sensor for HEL adaptive optics and 2D fine-tracking system applications, leveraging its expertise in LIVAR camera technology and its adaptive optics sensor technology.

Charting Evolution In The Industry

Since its rise to prominence in the 1960s, the optical sensor industry has undergone several evolutions to become one of the most critical technologies in the modern industrial ecosystem. In recent years, market players are becoming attuned to this change and engaging in persistent research and development activities to bring technologically advanced sensing technologies into the world.

Take 3D imaging, for instance, which is a driving force in several consumer and industrial applications, and has become a key area of interest for projects such as VIZTA. Funded by the European Union, the VIZTA project was aimed at developing novel and sophisticated laser and optical sensor sources for long- and short-range 3D imaging, with an application scope spanning across diverse fields from automotive to smart buildings to industry 4.0.

Industry pioneers such as STMicroelectronics have also made tremendous strides in advanced optical sensor technology development. In June 2021, for example, the company joined hands with Metalenz in a co-development and license agreement for a breakthrough meta-optics technology, designed to transform optical sensing across myriad application sectors including consumer devices and more, paving the way for the next generation of smart devices over the coming years.