LiDAR is considered as the critical sensor of successful deployment of self-driving vehicles. There has been enormous innovations in LiDAR technology to facilitate its commercialization and mass production. In LiDAR, illumination source plays vital role and companies have sufficient place for improvement in this segment. 3D and Flash LiDARs are some of the quite effective technologies adopted by many LiDAR manufacturers which is expected to speed-up LiDAR commercialization for Autonomous Vehicles. Vertical-Cavity Surface-Emitting Laser (VCSEL) is one of the illumination sources that emits high power optical beam vertically from its top surface. It can measure distance and velocity in 3D space and can eliminate the moving parts in the LiDAR, reducing overall cost of the system. Discrete VCSELs have limited output power, however can be scaled in arrays with tens to thousands of VCSELs on one chip enabling high power devices and can also provide very short pulses at higher power density. VCSEL is widely being used in consumer electronics for 3D sensing and is best suited for automotive applications. Apart from illumination, distance & velocity measurement, VCSELs enables the identification of objects at high speed and under difficult imaging conditions.
VCSEL are available in single mode and multi-mode. The single mode VCSEL beam have upper hand than the multi-mode in terms of coherent power, spectral purity and divergence. VCSELs also differ with respect to type of material- gallium nitride (GaN), indium phosphide (InP) and gallium arsenide (GaAs). InP based VCSELs have evolved rapidly because of its highly compatible wavelengths and high-speed communication applications, its operating wavelength range is 1300 – 1550nm; however, are quite expensive.
VCSEL have dominant presence in several applications including surveillance, sensing, IR illumination, pumping, industrial heating, and data communications. Other than this VCSEL has extended its possibilities in many other applications such as 3D facial recognition, automotive in-cabin sensing and augmented reality (AR). The recent integration of VCSEL in the latest IPhone by apple has given a boost to this technology. Apple has invested heavily in this technology as it is used in various features in apple devices such as Face ID, Cameras and Air Pods etc. Apple’s main VCSEL wafers suppliers are Finisar and Lumentum. Considering the technology shift and emergence in consumer electronics segment, VCSEL is predicted to be a billion dollars market soon.
The advent of flash LiDAR is the major enabler for VCSEL technology in automotive industry. Trilumina is one of the leading players providing VCSELs for automotive LiDAR with its patented innovations in VCSEL technology. The company last year has collaborated with the semiconductor giant Analog Devices Inc., with an aim to for produce a new integrated, solid-state illuminator module for automotive FLASH LiDAR systems. Other major players in the global VCSEL competitive landscape includes Finisar Corporation, Broadcom, Lumentum, II-VI Incorporated, Thor Labs, ams AG, OSRAM, Hamamatsu, Princeton Optronics, Vixar (acquired by OSRAM), Philips Photonics, Avago Technologies, IQE PLC, Lasertel, and few others.
The growth of this market has received further boost from the strategic partnerships and collaborations between the illumination source providers, LiDAR Manufacturers, Tier-1s and sensor suppliers. Moreover, to strengthen the reach in the global market, the companies have enhanced their product portfolio and increased their geographic reach through expansions and acquisitions. For instances, Osram has acquired VCSEL specialist Vixar to strengthen its product portfolio; Apple has collaborated with Finisar and invested a huge amount in the company to strengthen Finisar’s R&D and increase its production volume; II-VI has acquired CoAdna to expand its product portfolio; Lumentum acquired Ocralo a leader in optical components for an amount of USD 1.8 billion to strengthen its R&D in the field.
Undoubtedly, this industry holds high growth potential and sooner is expected to reach heights. The growing markets of in-cabin monitoring and flash LiDAR applications, and the need for 3D sensing in automotive industry are driving the growth of VCSEL industry exponentially.