How Lidar Revolutionized the Way We See the World

An Interview with Todd Neff, author of
The Laser That’s Changing the World

Todd Neff’s The Laser That’s Changing the World, tells the story of lidar’s origins, the people who propelled it forward, and its fascinating transitions to the mainstream.

Lidar has a long, rich history with its early concept dating back to the 1930s. The technology was developed in the early 1960s, closely following the invention of the laser. Lidar gained public notice in 1971 when the Apollo 15 mission used the technology to map the moon’s surface. Since then, lidar has been deployed in numerous game-changing applications such as self-driving cars, unmanned aerial vehicles, robotics, security, and more.

Todd Neff is an award-winning science, environment, and healthcare journalist who has written a book that catalogs many of the captivating stories in lidar’s history. The book, called The Laser That’s Changing the World, tells the story of lidar’s origins, the people who propelled it forward, and its fascinating transitions to the mainstream.

We checked in with Todd to hear from him about some of lidar’s early pioneer days, the technology’s road to autonomous vehicles, and where lidar is headed.

Award-winning science, environment, and healthcare journalist, Todd Neff

VL: One of the great strengths of your book is you addressed a complex technology in a way that’s easy to understand. Why do you think it’s important for a non-technical audience to know about lidar?

Todd Neff: People in general should know about lidar because I think lidar is going to be everywhere. Unless someone manages to come up with another technology that can combine with cameras and radar units to instantly provide precise distance measurements millions of times a second, lidar will be as standard on self-driving cars as headlights are on human-driven cars. In not too many years, driving your own car is going to be like churning your own butter or brewing your own beer. People will do it, but when it’s a question of driving in traffic or napping through it, it’s not going to be a hard decision for most of us. Vehicle autonomy depends on a lot of technology, but history shows that lidar has been the key enabler.

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VL: In the book, you called the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge the “birthplace of the self-driving car industry.” Why was that event so pivotal to the industry?

Neff: The 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge brought together a large group of very smart, not-at-all-risk-averse people – corporate, academic, and independent – who had had, until that point, no sense of the critical mass of talent and interest that had independently accumulated to develop self-driving vehicles. A community was born, in effect. It also showed that the core technologies – particularly computing technologies – had gotten fast enough and solid enough that good engineers could combine them into a package that could do much more than was possible even a few years earlier. The sensors were the weakness, but it wasn’t long before David Hall changed that.

VL: One especially notable outcome of that challenge, you wrote, was David Hall’s invention of the “seminal sensor for self-driving cars.” As you look at lidar’s history, how did David’s invention spur autonomous vehicle development?

Neff: It could be the case, decades from now, that lidar will seem as quaint on autonomous vehicles as hand-crank starters would be on modern cars. But there will be no denying that David Hall’s invention of automotive lidar, which he debuted on a Toyota Tundra in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, marked the moment at which the idea of developing commercially viable self-driving cars became realistic. The ability to identify objects in front of, next to, and behind a vehicle vastly simplified software development (you no longer had to “remember” what you just passed – that it was, say, a guy on a courier bike that would be next to you again at the next stoplight). You could just observe the guy on the bike and plan around it in real time. By the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, there were a half dozen finishers in a much more demanding course than those of the desert challenges. Hall’s Velodyne lidar was on five of them, including the winner, Carnegie Mellon’s “Boss.”

VL: Lidar is seen as an essential technology for autonomous vehicles. What did you learn about lidar’s role in other application areas such as 3D mapping, drones, and robots?

Neff: Automotive lidar piqued my initial interest, and it’s a major focus of The Laser That’s Changing the World. But the automotive story doesn’t start until the second half of the book. Like any other reporting effort, you find that there’s a lot more to the story than you first imagined. In this case, I learned that what became lidar was first envisioned by an Irish savant, Edward Hutchinson Synge, 30 years before the invention of the laser, and that the technology’s evolutionary path quickly diverged into two forks – defense (targeting systems) and atmospheric science (spotting pollution plumes at first). Then came bathymetry and land mapping (including land on Mars, Mercury, and the moon); geological and forestry and archeological applications; architectural and construction-related applications, and on and on. Now you’ve got lidar mapping Times Square for Spiderman movies and lidar zapping license plates in the hands of traffic officers; lidar measuring global winds from space; and lidar measuring the altitude of satellites so the same satellites can measure sea levels that are rising based on the mass balance of ice sheets, which other scientists are measuring with lidar. In the time it took to read the above paragraph, someone probably came up with a new application for lidar.

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VL: You have called lidar “a really powerful, massively adaptable tool.” It has had dramatic but not very well-known impact in a variety of fields. Can you share one area that you found particularly interesting?

Neff: I found it all interesting, really. There’s been such creativity in the development and application of lidar technology. And it has been organic and unpredictable. Researchers both in the scientific and the defense worlds noted that, with airborne lidar, enough laser light sneaks through a forest canopy that they can make out the ground below. On the defense side, they developed sensors that can see tanks and trucks hidden in jungles. On the science side, they found the long-hidden Seattle Fault on Bainbridge Island, and archaeologists then flew lidar over Central American jungles to completely rewrite the history of Mayan civilization (cities were many times larger than they were believed to be previously, when you had to hack through jungle to survey anything). The history of lidar provides a fascinating look at how a fundamental enabling technology can spill across and ultimately revolutionize radically different fields over time.

VL: You have noted that lidar has a tradition of creativity and innovation reaching back decades. Building on this legacy, what do you see next for lidar?

Neff: The huge amount of brainpower and money pouring into automotive lidar will yield smaller and smaller systems that are easier and easier to program and operate at lower and lower cost. I’d guess lidar will be incorporated into assistive technologies to help the visually impaired safely navigate their worlds, for example. Wheelchairs could well become autonomous. The work happening in automotive lidar today will make such systems technically and economically viable, just as the work done in the telecommunications industry brought lasers to the point that they were inexpensive and reliable enough to incorporate into automotive lidar. But you just can’t predict where a creative scientist or engineer with a problem to solve will take a new enabling technology. The history of lidar demonstrates that in spades.

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