Cheap Lasers Are Here, and It Means Everything for the Quick Advancement of Robotics

A company called Scanse is bringing LIDAR on the cheap.


People didn’t know they wanted to buy low-priced 3D printers until someone put them up for sale. Let’s see how it goes with low-priced lasers.

A robot is only as good as the sensors that help it do its job, and LIDAR is one of the best sensing technologies out there. LIDAR, short for Light Detection And Ranging, is a spinning array of lasers that robots use to identify surfaces and measure distances in 360 degrees. Its applications are powerful, used in applications like self-driving cars and fearsome humanoid robots. But their fundamental drawback is that they are generally expensive.

This disadvantage rang as opportunity for Kent Williams and Tyson Messori to improve the increasingly universal robot sensor. What could they accomplish by redesigning this sensor to be more economical? Perhaps even more interestingly, what could it mean for a younger generation of tinkerers to grow up with easy access to formerly expensive technology, a la the 3D printer? Lasers are already here to stay, despite the fact that it’s not uncommon for a spinning LIDAR array to be the most expensive component to an advanced robot. So imagine what could happen once we clear the hurdle of price.

Williams and Messori founded Scanse and developed their first product, a LIDAR array called Sweep, currently available for pre-order through Kickstarter. At the time of this writing, 686 people have thrown more than $170,000 after the $249 device that weighs 120 grams and can “see” 120 feet in every direction at once.

“That’s one of the reasons LIDAR is everywhere in robotics right now. It can see far in all lighting conditions,” Williams tells Inverse. He and Messori had previously developed yardwork robots for consumer use, but couldn’t sufficiently solve the problems of robot navigation on a budget. “The only [LIDAR units] that worked well enough started at two thousand bucks. There’s no other option for allowing an outdoor robot to navigate well, so that inspired us to go after it.”

It was important to Scanse that the finished product be as affordable as possible so that it might find as many applications as possible. “We wanted to make it extremely accessible. We’re really curious to see what people do with it,” Williams says. He tells us that Scanse’s LIDAR technology has already found its way into a few unlikely arenas: things like digital art, autonomous boat docking, and autonomous wheelchair navigation. The next step in the operation is to scale it up.

“We’re raising money on Kickstarter to go after this more aggressively. One of our biggest priorities is to get as much feedback as possible,” Williams says. Eventually, Scanse will create application-specific versions of its product for drones, security, and smart home purposes. In the meantime, they’ve got a little under $60,000 worth of pre-orders to sell before they can count the Kickstarter successful.

But let’s hope it goes that way. Not only for the sake of totally sweet obstacle avoidance capabilities on your drone, but for the fact that it is good to see economically exclusive technology made more accessible to all.

The fact that Scanse’s technology happens to be a robotics sensor at a time when robotics is poised to drastically reshape human life makes it that much more compelling.

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