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This 1960s Radar Technology Is Making a Comeback in Self Driving Cars

An Israeli company is giving cars x-ray vision.

Tracey Lindeman

Tracey Lindeman

Image: Vayyar

The newest automotive sensor to hit the market promises to give connected cars a sort of x-ray vision, allowing them to “see” inside of and around the car without cameras—for a fraction of the cost of other sensors.

Vayyar, a company based in the outskirts of Tel Aviv, makes a 3D imaging sensor based on a form of radio-frequency (RF) technology that’s been around since the 1960s. Called ultra-wideband (UWB), it was primarily used by the military in radar systems—which is how Vayyar’s founder Raviv Melamed, who served in the Israeli Defense Forces, said he first encountered it. He spoke on the phone from Las Vegas ahead of CES, where he was presenting his company’s sensor technology.

Read more: California Is a Terrible Place To Test Autonomous Cars

UWB got some attention in the early 2000s but quickly fell into obscurity, supplanted by other communications technologies like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and ZigBee (commonly used in smart-home devices), wrote Lou Frenzel in Electronic Design.

But with ever-expanding mobile and automotive applications, UWB is getting a new lease on life. Vayyar recently closed a $45 million Series C financing round for its suite of UWB-enabled applications, including medical imaging, smart home, and automotive.

Vayyar’s sensor chip has 24 transceivers running in frequencies from 0–20 GHz, and will soon feature 72. Most other chips have between one and three transceivers, which Melamed said gives his chip the kind of high-resolution imaging that hasn’t been possible before.

Image: Vayyar

In a 2011 paper on 3D UWB, researchers at Germany’s University of Duisburg-Essen wrote: “Due to the large range of available frequencies and especially the lower ones, UWB radar systems are able to penetrate dielectric materials to perform subsurface imaging.”

So, in short: The chip basically has x-ray vision and can see through objects and people—except with non-ionizing radiation, meaning it’s safe for humans.

Unlike traditional UWB devices, Melamed explained, Vayyar’s sensor sends out thousands of signals that create hundreds of thousands of points in space, which are analyzed in real time. As far as he knows, no other company is making such a high-resolution UWB sensor chip. “Our customers say nobody else is even close.”

Image: Vayyar

Melamed decided to commercialize the technology back in 2011, first applying it to medical testing—specifically hardware and software for early detection of breast cancer. The technology would help women, particularly those in poor or remote areas, get their breasts checked regularly in a less painful and expensive way. “Women don’t do [testing] because it’s a hassle,” he explained. “If we could reduce the price and make it safe, women would use it.”

The technology has broad appeal, though—which is why Vayyar is inserting itself into multiple markets. Given the hype surrounding smart-home and automotive technology, they were easy targets.

Vayyar’s chip—which Melamed said costs the company “a few dollars”—could emulate some of the qualities of LIDAR, a type of sensor that has been driving up the cost of connected and autonomous cars.

This kind of 3D UWB sensor could even be a step up from LIDAR when it comes to practicality and aesthetics. First, radar can “see” through adverse weather conditions better than LIDAR can. The interior sensors, meanwhile, will be able to pick up valuable information going on inside the car—for instance, where people are seated inside of a steering wheel-less car so that it can deploy the right airbags in a collision.

Read More: California Is a Terrible Place to Test Autonomous Cars

Elsewhere, today’s LIDAR and camera sensors are big honkin’ machines set atop car roofs. Vayyar’s sensors are small and can be integrated into seats, doors, and dashes, essentially making them invisible—which is something the company’s European, Japanese, and American automaker clients like. “The key thing in cars is design,” said Melamed.

Still, Melamed sees his technology being integrated into a fusion of sensors, rather than act as a standalone solution. “None of these technologies can operate perfectly in all conditions,” he said.

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