Discover the Rising Stars №013 | Interview with AODTBJ’s Founder Yao Jian
Alibaba Cloud Innovation Center has introduced a new column, Discover the Rising Stars, to shed light on the backgrounds of entrepreneurs and company innovations. Through interviews, live streams, and other media approaches, we will deliver valuable news stories from multiple perspectives and dimensions, to offer you the real voices of entrepreneurs and to witness the power of technological innovations.
LiDAR is a radar system that detects the target’s position, speed, and other elements by emitting laser beams and senses the surrounding objects by emitting and receiving laser beams. FMCW LiDAR technology combines advanced microwave radar signal processing and laser technology to achieve more dimensions and higher sensitivity detection through precise manipulation and demodulation of laser micrometre wavelengths. The 13th issue of Discover the Rising Stars interviewed Yao Jian, the founder of AODTBJ, the winner of the New Talent Award of China’s 5G Industry Innovation Entrepreneurship Contest’s national finale. Let’s find out about the innovation story of AODTBJ’s FMCW LiDAR.
FMCW LIDAR Has a High Technological Threshold
Founded in 2019, AODTBJ’s core focus is on the development and production of FMCW LiDAR. Yao Jian, the founder of AODTBJ, graduated from the Department of Computer Science at Tsinghua University and later went to the United States to study for his PhD at Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He worked at Wall Street on technology investment and sat in executive positions in various technology companies in China.
Among more than 100 LiDAR companies globally, there are only 5 FMCW LiDAR R&D and production companies, and AODTBJ is the only one in China. FMCW LiDAR’s defining characteristics are high safety, high integration, and high reliability. It has a broad market and varied applications, widely used in unmanned vehicles, field transportation, smart city, aerospace, security, smartphones. In January 2019, AODTBJ launched the principle model of FMCW LiDAR and completed two prototypes at the end of the year. When 2020 was drawing to a close, AODTBJ achieved the technical capacity to deliver to customers in small quantities.
The technical barrier of FMCW LiDAR is very high. The theoretical threshold of the 4D LiDAR system is higher than Pulse LiDAR (TOF) and even higher than the microwave radar system. Furthermore, to find the optimal solution for signal transmission and receiving system, to test system matching algorithm, and many more elements all require experience accumulated through repeated trial and error in the field of light detection. Not to mention system minimization, core device, and module self-research, and future on-chip integration are all intensive engineering work.
AODTBJ’s team members have impressive academic backgrounds and decades of technical experience in laser wavelength manipulation and demodulation. With their ongoing efforts, they have successfully broken through the technical barriers and obtained patent protection for phase-coded unsaturated modulation methods, devices, LiDAR range and speed measurement method, and LiDAR system. AODTBJ is now one of the suppliers worldwide that can provide FMCW LiDAR.
Aiming at the Direction of Unmanned Vehicles
“New sensor advances are what will bring about the development of the industrial revolution. I think the unmanned vehicle is a great invention of the 21st century. The eye of these unmanned vehicles is LiDAR.” Yao Jian said that the ultimate goal of all employees of AODTBJ is achieving social values. He hopes to promote industry advances starting from FMCW LiDAR.
AODTBJ tries to set FMCW LIDAR in the direction of unmanned vehicle applications.
As we know, environment perception, like having eyes and ears, is a prerequisite for unmanned vehicles. The primary solution for environment perception ability was the camera and millimetre-wave radar technologies. Later, the solution moved on to having TOF LiDAR as the centre with millimetre-wave and camera as supplementary. However, data integration needs many AI devices for target identification with a limited range. The FMCW LiDAR carries Doppler information on each pixel point. The laser wavelength is ten’s root of degree three or four times smaller than millimetre wave, which solves the problem of moving target recognition by physical signal. Compared to TOF, the FMCW with 80% information can work with unmanned vehicles with simpler software and hardware. Another significant superiority of the FMCW in unmanned vehicle applications is that it adopts the concept of channel multiplexing with one code for one machine, which significantly improves the signal-to-noise ratio.
In comparison with existing LiDAR and foreign-related products, AODTBJ’s FMCW LiDAR “Fire Eye”, “Golden Eye” and “Sky Eye” series have significant innovations in its technical system, signal characteristics, and installation structure and technology. The main features are:
Technical innovation: The jump from AM to FM is what the application demands and the inevitable development trend. As 5G optical communication devices mature, LiDAR can cross over from AM to FM. Combining 5G optical communication devices, microwave radar signal processing, and laser technology makes LiDAR truly integrated into the radar family, with good anti-interference capability, high detection sensitivity, and moving target high-precision identification. AODTBJ’s FMCW LiDAR adopts the pseudo-random phase coding technology. By creatively utilizing the laser’s wave-particle duality, the FMCW LiDAR is built on a foundation of modern microwave radar technology, significantly improving the stability of traditional FMCW LiDAR.
Innovative structure and process: Due to the extremely short laser wavelength, micron-level deformation errors in optical heterodyne detection will seriously impact the performance of the radar system. High-stability, low-cost, mass-produced optical heterodyne detection system is the key to whether FMCW LiDAR can be applied in practice. With over ten years of experience in coherent optical path development, AODTBJ has solved the stability and assembly problems of the photon-level heterodyne optical system after multiple rounds of model simulation and experimental iteration. In the future, the process can also be used in high-precision coherent detection fields such as swept-frequency interferometric ranging and space coherent communication.
Innovative performance: FMCW LiDAR maintains its characteristic high angular resolution and high ranging while providing millimetre-wave radar’s anti-interference and speed measurement capability. FMCW LiDAR uses the Doppler information of the target to calculate its relative speed. Compared with the traditional moving target recognition method based on point cloud comparison and machine learning, FMCW LiDAR solves moving target detection, significantly improving the detection capability and stability of moving targets, a significant innovation in laser and radar technology.
At present, AODTBJ is actively communicating with overseas and domestic clients. In the summer of 2019, AODTBJ worked with Huawei Hisilicon on technology exchange and completed small-batch mass production for delivery at the end of 2020. For overseas clients, the company is working with Waymo Nuro, Bluespace Uber, and other companies monthly to provide detailed technical documents and road test data based on their needs. The orders will be signed after the tests are completed.
Breakthrough Industry Challenges Through Technological Innovation
The major companies currently researching and selling LiDAR. To put it simply, are divided into three paths: short, medium, and long-range.
Examples for mature, short-range mechanical LiDAR: Velodyne, HESAI
Examples for medium range, MEMS mirror LiDAR: Innoviz, RoboSense
Examples for long-range, OPA+FMCW LiDAR: Aeva, Quanergy
AODTBJ is on the third path, and its strategic plan for the future is mainly customer-oriented. Building on a solid technology foundation, AODTBJ will optimize LiDAR by reducing production costs and meeting customer needs.
AODTBJ uses the AM method, the opposite of the linear FM method chosen by overseas FMCW LiDAR companies. The advantage of the FM method is it requires less hardware and lower cost, but its shortcoming is complicated signal processing. However, it seems AODTBJ has successfully overcome the issue as their strong technical team launched a prototype product in less than a year and is in close communication with potential clients.
The FMCW LiDAR developed by AODTBJ uses non-customized optical telecommunication hardware, which can only support 20%-40% of the device’s actual performance. Scaling to chip-level is the inevitable decision to reduce the cost of FMCW LiDAR. AODTBJ intends to gradually launch chip-scale FMCW LiDAR through three chip-scaling steps: from signal processing board to optical circuit board, and finally post-modulation seed laser and amplifier.
We can foresee the great prospect of the chip-scale market from the many applications of portable barriers and from Mobiley’s eyeQ4 chip, which sold in tens of millions in 2019.
The 5G Industry Competition Brought Many Rewards and Seeking More Partners
“LiDAR is foundational hardware. There is a large amount of data in unmanned vehicles that need timely processing. We have been paying close attention to Alibaba Cloud since its first conception, and today it has become a global Cloud service platform.” Regarding his participation in the China’s 5G Industry Innovation Entrepreneurship Contest hosted by Alibaba Cloud Innovation Center, Yao Jian said, “Unmanned vehicles, V2X, 5G, sensors, these are all inextricably linked in the same ecosystem. Through this competition, we connected with colleagues and upstream and downstream partners in the industry. Upstream partners are our device manufacturers, such as demodulators and optical circuits. Downstream partners are innovative companies in areas such as unmanned vehicles. The participation in the competition has increased our understanding of the unmanned vehicle industry and other startup partners to our company. We have already started active exchanges with Alibaba DAMO Academy as well, which has benefited us greatly.”
“Entrepreneurship is tough. Every day we are facing new challenges. But just like in a game, you keep upgrading and defeat the boss. Every time we get past an obstacle means one step forward.” How did Yao Jian see entrepreneurship? “Speaking in broad terms, technological competition between countries is a reality. We are bound to encounter some level of communication challenges with clients. The other challenge is funding. Challenges are all too common for entrepreneurial teams.”
Yao Jian also mentioned that entrepreneurs should hold a “street pole advertising” mentality: no matter what life throws at them, always keep a smile on your face. What is the “street pole advertising” mentality? It came from the story of Yu Minhong, the founder of New Oriental. In the early days of Yu’s entrepreneurship, he didn’t have a strong operation team. With a bucket of glue, he recruited the first group of students by sticking advertisements on street poles, which laid the foundation for his success. “I could go to 30–50 companies in about four months with a suitcase to win one client.” Yao Jian said with a smile.
According to the data released by qianzhan.com, with the development of China’s economy and the increase of LiDAR application fields, China’s LiDAR market will grow substantially, expecting to be worth 464 million yuan in 2022. It is foreseeable that LiDAR will be a promising blue ocean market.
FMCW LiDAR will become the core sensor in all major fields by virtue of its high SNR, fast response speed, and high reliability. It is expected that AODTBJ’s FMCW LiDAR technology can be applied to many scenarios of future technology, such as UAVs, unmanned vehicles, and intelligent robots.
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