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Emerging laser technologies: a path to disruptive business

Dr Ronald Schaeffer reports on the opening plenary session of LIA’s 2018 International Congress on Applications of Lasers and Electro-Optics (ICALEO)

This year’s three opening plenary speakers are all well known within and outside of the laser community.

The first speaker and keynote presenter was Dr Islam Salama from Intel, speaking about ‘The Next Wave of Information and Computing Technology’.

Next Dr Jason Eichenholz, from Luminar Technologies, gave a very fast paced and entertaining talk titled Lighting the Path Toward Automated Mobility.

Finally, Dr Milton Chang, from Incubic Management, gave some sound advice for entrepreneurs based on his many years of experience in the laser industry – founding companies, running companies, growing companies, selling companies and now, funding the next generation of entrepreneurs through his capital management company. 

Dr Islam Salama spoke about ‘big data’. There is a saying attributed to Bill Gates (who vehemently denies he would ever have said anything so stupid) that ‘640k of memory ought to be enough for anyone’. With the expansive growth of the internet we are already orders of magnitude beyond 640k. Due to billions of people joining the net, the need for device interconnectivity between tens of billions of devices, and achieving this interconnectivity via the cloud, tremendous amounts of data will be generated – requiring a revolutionary change in the technology infrastructures used to transmit, store and analyse all of this data. One application that was specifically mentioned, and which is a great lead in to the next speaker, is autonomous driving, which requires not only much larger computing capacity, but also near instantaneous feedback, which are not available using currently deployed technology. All of this and more is driving growth of future integrated circuit scaling. This scale up in technology will require the use of lots of lasers!

In 1958 Jack Kilby, Kurt Lehovec and Robert Noyce (1959) invented the integrated circuit (IC). It was also in this same year that Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow showed, in a paper published in Physical Review Letters, that lasers could be made to operate in the visible and infrared regions and they even proposed how it could be accomplished. In many ways the growth of the IC market has paralleled the growth of the laser market. For instance, Intel and LIA are both 50 years old this year. As the four ‘waves’ of computing have developed and are developing, lasers have played an increasingly important role – from PCs in the 1990s, to the web in the 2000s, to the cloud starting in 2010 and on to AI after 2015. Currently, the lasers that are used in the manufacturing of ICs are doing things such as photolithography, marking, imaging for IC patterning, singulation, through hole vias and buried vias. While it is not expected that lasers will play a great role in the manufacture of the chip, it is in the packaging that lasers will have a great impact, and the expected acceleration curve has a ‘hockey stick’ shape, meaning fast and large growth. 

Dr Salama made the point that packaging must scale as fast as, or faster than, Moore’s Law for the market to expand. Also, optical interconnects (not Cu) are in the future and getting them onto the chips will be key – a great area for the growth of especially high precision lasers. 

In the second presentation Dr Jason Eichenholz showed the work done by his company, Luminar. First, he defined the five levels of autonomy: 1. Feet Off, 2. Hands Off, 3. Eyes Off, 4. Mind Off, and 5. No Driver. 

Currently, judging by the number of vehicle accidents on the road every year, it can be accurately stated that, on average, humans are pretty bad drivers. However, autonomy is worse! If we look at the above list, there is a big gap between levels two and three and that is where we are currently. Luminar is developing lidar technology to sense things accurately in real time out to hundreds of feet in all directions. This process generates huge amounts of data and this data must be collected, processed and made actionable. Using the 1,550nm eye-safe wavelength, a set of lasers on the vehicle sends a signal which is then detected and analysed. Even with the best current technology, autonomous driving is only good 99 per cent of the time. To state his company’s policy succinctly, it intends to solve the last 1 per cent of the problem.

Luminar’s technology is designed to take the guesswork out of autonomy by measuring millions of points per second and to put that resolution where it matters most. This allows its sensors to see not just where objects are, but also what they are, even at a distance. Compared to most advanced lidar deployed in vehicles today, Luminar’s system has 10 times the range and 50 times the resolution. It can see further than 200 metres at less than 10 per cent reflectivity, while current technology can only see 30-40 metres out at 10 per cent reflectivity. Further sight means more time to react safely, especially at highway speeds. While this technology is very promising, there is a lot of work to be done and, as Dr Eichenholz stated: ‘I will put technology into a product, I will not put science into a product’. His motivations are both professional and personal. He has two teenage children and aging parents. In the case of his children he is hoping the technology will make their lives safer and even help to enrich the life of his son, who has autism and may otherwise never have the ability to be mobile. He also reminded all of us who have been in that position how painful it is to have to tell your father, the man who taught you to drive, that he can no longer drive because of age and the poor eye sight and slow reaction times that come with it.

Lastly, Dr Milton Chang advised in his presentation that a growth strategy for any successful company should include:

Strengthening of competitive advantages;

  • Pursuing an ambitious vision, but one milestone at a time;
  • Identifying customers with specificity to become their go-to for all their needs;
  • Garnering adequate resources and expertise to achieve excellence; and
  • Remembering – resources come with reciprocity – give to get, fair exchange.

For technical professionals, the following pointers were given by Chang:

  • Develop an ambitious long-term goal and define specific steps to get to that goal;
  • Gain recognition on the job;
  • Build reputation and build relationships in the community; and
  • Gain a reputation for leadership. 

A list of beneficial reminders was also given by Chang to help on the path to success. Challenge your own ideas, assumptions and beliefs. Have enough humility to listen to advice, but make your own decisions based on logic. Verify your assumptions – if something is unlikely to happen based on sound logical reasoning, it probably won’t happen! And finally, remember to take calculated risks – a modest success is better than a spectacular failure! Great words to end the opening plenary session.

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