Voyant Photonics raises $4.3M to fit lidar on the head of a pin

Lidar is a critical method by which robots and autonomous vehicles sense the world around them, but the lasers and sensors generally take up a considerable amount of space. Not so with Voyant Photonics, which has created a lidar system that you really could conceivably balance on the head of a pin.

Before getting into the science, it’s worth noting why this is important. Lidar is most often used as a way for a car to sense things at a medium distance — far away, radar can outperform it, and up close ultrasonics and other methods are more compact. But from a few feet to a couple hundred feed out, lidar is very useful.

Unfortunately even the most compact lidar solutions today are still, roughly, the size of a hand, and the ones ready for use in production vehicles are still larger. A very small lidar unit that could be hidden on every corner of a car, or even inside the cabin. It could provide rich positional data about everything in and around the car with little power and no need to disrupt the existing lines and design. (And that’s not getting into the many, many other industries that could use this.)

Lidar began with the idea of, essentially, a single laser being swept across a scene multiple times per second, its reflection carefully measured to track the distances of objects. But mechanically steered lasers are bulky, slow, and prone to failure, so newer companies are attempting other techniques like illuminating the whole scene at once (flash lidar) or steering the beam with complex electronic surfaces (metamaterials) instead.

One discipline that seems primed to join in the fun is silicon photonics, which is essentially the manipulation of light on a chip for various purposes — for instance, to replace electricity in logic gates to provide ultra-fast, low-heat processing. Voyant, however, has pioneered a technique to apply silicon photonics to lidar.

In the past, attempts in chip-based photonics to send out a coherent laser-like beam from a surface of lightguides (elements used to steer light around or emit it) have been limited by a low field of view and power because the light tends to interfere with itself at close quarters.

Voyant’s version of these “optical phased arrays” sidesteps that problem by carefully altering the phase of the light traveling through the chip. The result is a strong beam of non-visible light that can be played over a wide swathe of the environment at high speed with no moving parts at all — yet it emerges from a chip dwarfed by a fingertip.

LIDAR Fingertip Crop

“This is an enabling technology because it’s so small,” said Voyant co-founder Steven Miller. “We’re talking cubic centimeter volumes. There’s a lot of electronics that can’t accommodate a lidar the size of a softball — think about drones and things that are weight sensitive, or robotics, where it needs to be on the tip of its arm.”

Lest you think this is just a couple yahoos who think they’ve one-upped years of research, Miller and co-founder Chris Phare came out of the Lipson Nanophotonics Group at Columbia University.

“This lab basically invented silicon photonics,” said Phare. “We’re all deeply ingrained with the physics and devices-level stuff. So we were able to step back and look at lidar, and see what we needed to fix and make better to make this a reality.”

The advances they’ve made frankly lie outside my area of expertise so I won’t attempt to characterize them too closely, except that it solves the interference issues and uses a frequency modulated continuous wave technique, which lets it measure velocity as well as distance (Blackmore does this as well). At any rate their unique approach to moving and emitting light from the chip lets them create a device that is not only compact, but combines transmitter and receiver in one piece, and has good performance — not just good for its size, they claim, but good.

“It’s a misconception that small lidars need to be low-performance,” explained Phare. “The silicon photonic architecture we use lets us build a very sensitive receiver on-chip that would be difficult to assemble in traditional optics. So we’re able to fit a high-performance lidar into that tiny package without any additional or exotic components. We think we can achieve specs comparable to lidars out there, but just make them that much smaller.”

photonics testbed

The chip-based lidar in its test bed.

It’s even able to be manufactured in a normal fashion like other photonics chips. That’s a huge plus when you’re trying to move from research to product development.

With this first round of funding, the team plans to expand the team and get this tech out of the lab and into the hands of engineers and developers. The exact specs, dimensions, power requirements and so on are all very different depending on the application and industry, so Voyant can make decisions based on feedback from people in other fields.

In addition to automotive (“It’s such a big application that no one can make lidar and not look at that space,” Miller said), the team is in talks with numerous potential partners.

Although being at this stage while others are raising 9-figure rounds might seem daunting, Voyant has the advantage that it has created something totally different from what’s out there, a product that can safely exist alongside popular big lidars from companies like Innoviz and Luminar.

“We’re definitely talking to big players in a lot of these places, drones and robotics, perhaps augmented reality. We’re trying to suss out exactly where this is most interesting to people,” said Phare. “We see the evolution here being something like bringing room size computers down to chips.”

The $4.3 million raised by Voyant comes from Contour Venture Partners, LDV Capital, and DARPA, which naturally would be interested in something like this.

Sony’s new A7R IV camera is a 61 MP full-frame mirrorless beast

Sony unveiled the latest in its line of interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras on Tuesday, debuting the A7R IV, its top-of-the-line full-frame digital shooter aimed at pros. The new camera packs a walloping 61-megapixel sensor, and will retail for $3,500 when it goes on sale this September.

The camera’s image resolution is a “world first” for a 35mm equivalent full-frame digital sensor, Sony notes, and that’s not where the improvements on this successor to the wildly popular A7R III ends: The A7R IV also has 10fps rapid shooting with continuous autofocus and autoexposure tracking capabilities; 567 phase-detect autofocus points that cover 74% of the frame; real-time eye autofocus tracking for stills and movies, which can handle both human and animal subjects; 4K movie recording without any pixel binning and with S-Log 2/3 support for editing (although without a 60p mode, as it caps out at 30p); ISO range of 100-32000 (and 50-102400 expandable); battery life of around 539 shots with the EVF or 670 shots without, and much more.

sony alpha a7r iv

This Sony camera is clearly a shot across the bow at recent entrants into the full-frame mirrorless camera market including Nikon and Canon, and it looks like Sony will be upping one of its biggest advantages by offering even better subject-tracking autofocus, which is a category where it already has a strong lead. The high-resolution sensor is another area where the competition will be left behind, since the Nikon Z7 captures at 45.7 MP and the Canon R maxes out at 30.3 MP.

Real-time eye autofocus in movie recording will also help a lot for video shooters, after Sony introduced it to still shooting for the A7 and A7R III via a firmware update in April. Touch tracking allows shooters to just tap the thing they want to maintain autofocus on using the back display LCD while shooting, and a new digital audio interface added to the camera’s hot shoe connector means recording with shotgun mic that support the feature without any additional cable clutter.

The A7R IV also offers five-axis in-body image stabilization, a 5.76 million-to UXGA OLED EVF, boosted weather and dust resistance, wireless tethered shooting capabilities and dual UHS-II SD card slots for storage.

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Petcube’s Bites 2 and Play 2 amuse pets and humans alike with Alexa built-in

Petcube’s original Bites smart treat dispenser and Play pet camera with a built-in laser pointer were great for pet parents who couldn’t always be around to hang out with their furry charges, but the new Bites 2 and Play 2 come with one big new upgrade that make them far more versatile than the original: They both double as Alexa-powered smart speaker devices.

Both the Bites 2 and Play 2 can hear and respond to Alexa requests, with a four-microphone array that in my limited testing actually outperforms the Alexa mics built into my Sonos One and Sonos Beam speakers, which is pretty impressive for devices whose main features are serving up treats and keeping an eye on your pets. That’s on top of the Bites 2 being able to remotely dispense treats for your pet, and the Play 2 providing playtime away from home with a built-in laser pointer you can direct from your phone.

The Bites 2 and Play 2 also feature other improvements, including new wider angle lenses that offer full 180-degree views of your home for more likelihood you’ll spot your pets wandering around, and better Fi-Fi connectivity support with additional 5GHz networking, plus night vision and full HD video. Currently, the field of view is limited to 160-degrees, with an update to follow that will unlock the full 180, but for most users, the 160 FOV is going to show you an entire room and then some.

With the Bites 2, you can also initiate video calls and chat with your pet, though my dog Chelsea basically is just confused by this. It is handy if I need to ask my partner if there’s anything else I’m forgetting to pick up from the store, however. And the treat-flinging feature definitely does appeal to Chelsea, especially now that it’s Alexa-integrated so that I can easily issue a voice command to give her a well-earned reward.

This has actually proven more than just fun – Chelsea suffers from a little bit of separation anxiety, so when we leave our condo she usually spends a few quick minutes complaining audibly with some rather loud barks. But since getting the Petcube Bites 2 to test, I’ve been reinforcing good behavior by reminding her to keep quiet, waiting outside the door and then flinging her a treat or two for her troubles. It’s pretty much done away with the bye-bye barking in just a short time.

The Play 2 doesn’t fling treats, but it does have a built-in laser pointer (which the company says is totally safe for your pets eyes). Chelsea straight up does not understand the laser or even really acknowledge it, so that’s a bit of a miss, but with a friend’s cat this proved an absolute show-stopping feature. I’ve also known dogs previously who loved this, so your mileage may vary, but if you’re unsure it’s probably worth picking up a dollar store laser pointer keychain first to ensure it’s their jam.

The $249 Bites 2 and $199 Play 2 offer a ton of value in just the image and build quality upgrades over their original incarnations, and their basic features are probably plenty enough for doting pet parents. But the addition of Alexa makes these both much more appealing in my opinion, since it essentially bundles an Echo in each device at no extra cost.

Hero Labs raises £2.5M for its ultrasonic device to monitor a property’s water use and prevent leaks

Hero Labs, a London-based startup that is developing “smart” technology to help prevent water leaks in U.K. properties, has raised £2.5 million in seed funding. The round is led by Earthworm Group, an environmental fund manager, with further support via a £300,000 EU innovation grant and a number of unnamed private investors.

The new capital will be used by Hero Labs to accelerate development of its first product: a smart device dubbed “Sonic” that uses ultrasonic technology to monitor water use within a property, including the early detection of water leaks.

Founded in 2018 by Krystian Zajac after he exited Neos, a smart home insurer that was acquired by Aviva, Hero Labs was born out of the realisation that a lot of smart home technology either wasn’t very smart or didn’t solve mass problems (Zajac had also previously ran a smart home company focusing on ultra high net-worth individuals that delivered bespoke designs for things like motorised swimming pool floors or home cinemas doubling up as panic rooms).

Coupled with this, the Hero Labs founder learned that water wastage was a very costly problem, both financially and environmentally, with water leaks being the number one culprit for property damage in the U.K. ahead of fires, gas explosions or break-ins combined. This sees water leaks cost the U.K. insurance industry £1 billion per year, apparently.

“My vision for the company is to solve real-life problems with truly smart technology,” Zajac tells me. “From working at Neos and alongside some of the world’s largest home insurers I understood the problems that impacted ordinary homeowners and their families on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps most surprisingly, I learnt that water leaks are far and way the biggest cause of damage to homes… I also wanted to do more for the environment in my next venture after learning that water leaks waste 3 billion litres of water a day in the U.K. alone”.

KZ Event

To that end, the Sonic device and service is described as a smart leak defence system. Aimed at anyone who wants to prevent water leaks in their property — including homeowners, landlords, facilities management, property developers and businesses — the ultrasonic device typically attaches to the piping below your sink and “listens” to the vibrations coming off the interconnected pipes.

Sonic then monitors the water flow using machine learning and its algorithms to identify usage and detect anomalies. This requires the technology to understand the difference between appliances, running taps and even flushing toilets so that it can build up a picture of normal water usage in the home and in turn identify if that pattern is broken. Crucially, if needed, Sonic can automatically shut off the water supply to prevent a water leak damaging the property or its possessions.

Will a full launch planned for later this year, Sonic is targeting consumers as well as small businesses initially. “We are [also] in discussions with insurers who might subsidise the product or give it away completely for free to certain more affluent customers to minimise the risk of water escape,” adds Zajac.

Archinaut snags $73 million in NASA funding to 3-D print giant spacecraft parts in orbit

A project to 3-D print bulky components in space rather than bring them up there has collected a $73.7 million contract from NASA to demonstrate the technique in space. Archinaut, a mission now several years in development from Made In Space, could launch as soon as 2022.

The problem at hand is this: If you want a spacecraft to have solar arrays 60 feet long, you need to bring 60 feet of structure for those arrays to attach to — they can’t just flap around like ribbons. But where do you stash a 60-foot pole, or two 30-foot ones, or even 10 six-foot ones when you only have a few cubic feet of space to put them in? It gets real complicated real fast to take items with even a single large dimension into space.

Archinaut’s solution is simple. Why not just take the material for that long component into space and print it out on the spot? There’s no more compact way to keep the material than as a brick of solid matter.

Naturally this extends (so to speak) to more than simply rods and poles — sheets of large materials for things like light sails, complex interlocking structures on which other components could be mounted… there are plenty of things too big to take into space in one piece, but which could be made of smaller ones if necessary. Here’s one made for attaching instruments at a large fixed distance from a central craft:

optimast3Made in Space already has contracts in place with NASA, and has demonstrated 3-D printing of parts aboard the International Space Station. It has also shown that it can print stuff in an artificial vacuum more or less equivalent to a space environment.

The demonstrator mission, Archinaut One, would launch aboard a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle no earlier than 2022, and after achieving a stable orbit, begin extruding a pair of beams that will eventually extend out 32 feet. Attached to these beams will be flexible solar arrays that unfurl at the same rate, attached to the rigid structures of the beams. When they’re finished, a robotic arm will lock them in place and do other housekeeping.

You can see it all happen in this unfortunately not particularly exciting video:

Once finished, this pair of 32-foot solar arrays would theoretically generate some five times the power that spacecraft that size would normally pull in. Since spacecraft are almost without exception power-starved systems, having more watts to use or store for the orbital equivalent of a rainy day would certainly be welcome.

In another print, the robot arm could rearrange parts, snap on connectors, and perform other tasks to create more complex structures like the ones in the concept art up top. That’s still well in the future, however — the current demonstrator mission will focus on the beam-and-array thing, though the team will certainly learn a lot about how to accomplish other builds in the process.

Naturally in-space manufacturing is a big concern for a country that plans to establish a permanent presence on and around the moon. It’s a lot easier to make something there than make a quarter-million-mile delivery. You can keep up with Archinaut and Made in Space’s other projects along the space-printing line at the company’s blog.

These robo-ants can work together in swarms to navigate tricky terrain

While the agility of a Spot or Atlas robot is something to behold, there’s a special merit reserved for tiny, simple robots that work not as a versatile individual but as an adaptable group. These “tribots” are built on the model of ants, and like them can work together to overcome obstacles with teamwork.

Developed by EPFL and Osaka University, tribots are tiny, light, and simple, moving more like inchworms than ants, but able to fling themselves up and forward if necessary. The bots themselves and the system they make up are modeled on trap-jaw ants, which alternate between crawling and jumping, and work (as do most other ants) in fluid roles like explorer, worker, and leader. Each robot is not itself very intelligent, but they are controlled as a collective that deploys their abilities intelligently.

In this case a team of tribots might be expected to get from one end of a piece of complex terrain to another. An explorer could move ahead, sensing obstacles and relaying their locations and dimensions to the rest of the team. The leader can then assign worker units to head over and try to push the obstacles out of the way. If that doesn’t work, an explorer can try hopping over it — and if successful, it can relay its telemetry to the others so they can do the same thing.

fly tribot fly

Fly, tribot, fly!

It’s all done quite slowly at this point — you’ll notice that in the video, much of the action is happening at 16x speed. But rapidity isn’t the idea here; Similar to Squishy Robotics’ creations, it’s more about adaptability and simplicity of deployment.

The little bots weigh only 10 grams each, and are easily mass-produced, as they’re basically PCBs with some mechanical bits and grip points attached — “a quasi-two-dimensional metamaterial sandwich,” according to the paper. If they only cost (say) a buck each, you could drop dozens or hundreds on a target area and over an hour or two they could characterize it, take measurements and look for radiation or heat hot spots, and so on.

If they moved a little faster, the same logic and a modified design could let a set of robots emerge in a kitchen or dining room to find and collect crumbs or scoot plates into place. (Ray Bradbury called them “electric mice” or something in “There will come soft rains,” one of my favorite stories of his. I’m always on the lookout for them.)

Swarm-based bots have the advantage of not failing catastrophically when something goes wrong — when a robot fails, the collective persists, and it can be replaced as easily as a part.

“Since they can be manufactured and deployed in large numbers, having some ‘casualties’ would not affect the success of the mission,” noted  With their unique collective intelligence, our tiny robots can demonstrate better adaptability to unknown environments; therefore, for certain missions, they would outperform larger, more powerful robots.”

It raises the question, in fact, of whether the sub-robots themselves constitute a sort of uber-robot? (This is more of a philosophical question, raised first in the case of the Constructicons and Devastator. Transformers was ahead of its time in many ways.)

The robots are still in prototype form, but even as they are constitute a major advance over other “collective” type robot systems. The team documents their advances in a paper published in the journal Nature.

Amazon reportedly ramps development on Alexa-powered home robot on wheels

Bloomberg reported last April that Amazon was working on a home robot codenamed ‘Vesta’ (after the Roman goddess of the hearth and home) last year, and now the publication says that development on the project continues. Plus, the report includes new details about the specifics of the robot, including that it will indeed support Alexa and have wheels to help it move around. My terrible artist’s rendering of what that could look like is above.

The plan for Vesta was apparently to release it this year, but it’s not yet quite ready for mass production, according to Bloomberg’s sources. And while it could end up mothballed and never see the light of day, as with any project being developed ahead of launch, the company is said to be putting more engineering and development resources into the team working on its release.

Current prototypes of the robot are said to be about waist-high, per the report, and make their way through the world aided by sensor-fed computer-vision. It’ll come when you call thanks to the Alexa integration, per an internal demo described by Bloomberg, and should ostensibly offer all the same kind of functionality you’d get with an Echo device, including calling, timers and music playback.

For other clues as to what Vesta could look like, if and when it ever launches, a good model might be Kuri, the robot developed by Bosch internal startup Mayfield Robotics which was shuttered a year ago and never made it to market. Kuri could also record video and take photos, play games and generally interact with the household.

Meanwhile, Amazon is also apparently readying a Sonos-competing high-quality Echo speaker to debut next year.

Amazon said to be launch new Echo speaker with premium sound next year

Amazon is reportedly looking to offer an Echo that more directly competes with high-end speakers like the Sonos line of device of Apple’s HomePod, according to a new report from Bloomberg. The speaker should be released sometime next year, according to the sources cited in the report, and will be somewhat wider than the existing Echo models (perhaps more akin to the Echo Sub, pictured above), packing in four separate tweeters to help boost the song quality.

It will, of course, also offer access to the company’s Alexa voice assistant, which is what has propelled Echo to its current level of success. Bloomberg notes that it’s also likely to work better for the high-fidelity audio version of Amazon’s music streaming service that has previously been reported to be in the works.

This could make for an interesting working relationship with some of Amazon’s existing partners, including Sonos, since it sounds like this will be a direct competitor. Newer Sonos speakers, including the Sonos One and Sonos Beam, support Alexa voice commands out of the box. While both Echo devices and Sonos support multi-room streaming and speaker grouping, Sonos has always had far superior audio quality when compared to the Echo hardware – albeit at a premium price.

Sonos, meanwhile, is gearing up to launch speakers powered by its technology with Ikea, with the Symfonisk line that is set for release in August. Smart speakers are a busy space with a lot of money and interest from many companies big and small, but Amazon has a lot working in its favor if it can also produce something that wins on high-quality audio at a reasonable price.