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SiLC launches breakthrough lidar chip enabling next-gen robot vision

CES 2023 bore witness to a potential seismic shift in machine vision and automation thanks to Silicon Photonics leader SiLC Technologies. The firm unveiled a game-changing lidar system-on-chip packing high-resolution depth sensing onto a tiny footprint at radically low power.

Dubbed the Eyeonic Vision System Mini, it leapfrogs existing sensors employed by robots and autonomous machines across warehouses, factories, logistic hubs and beyond. This revolutionary advancement promises to accelerate adoption by easing integration while exceeding reliability and capability benchmarks at fractional sizes and costs.

"We essentially miniaturized and supercharged lidar using the same fabrication techniques as computer chips," explained SiLC CEO Dr. Mehdi Asghari, whose startup emerged from UC Santa Barbara's renowned photonics program. "Rather than off-the-shelf components, everything from microring resonators to optical amplifiers to ball grid arrays gets patterned onto the silicon wafer itself."

The resulting lidar SoC delivers four cohesive channels supporting 3D motion imaging at blinding speeds beyond traditional frequency modulated continuous wave (FMCW) architecture. And the base chip scales readily into various configurations matching customer requirements.

Earlier long-range SiLC solutions already demonstrated over 2 kilometers of range - handy for last-mile delivery rovers or scanning factory floors. However, for robots manipulating objects or navigating confined spaces, precision trumps distance.

Here the Eyeonic Mini truly shines. An in-house FMCW chip coupled with indie Semiconductor's breakthrough iND83301 Surya SoC processor provides sub-millimeter depth resolution from 10 meters onwards. In human terms: discerning a bottle cap's height from across a room.

Dexterity Targets Logistics and Warehousing Such nanosecond nanosecond responsiveness translates into transformative gains for dexterous mobile manipulators in logistics, warehouses and intralogistics. Machines can safely grasp, transport, and place diverse SKUs while avoiding collisions. Nesting irregular shapes like polybags in tight loading patterns becomes feasible.

In fact, that exact application attracted Dexterity, an AI startup creating robotic hands and arms for truck loading/unloading. Their smarts require split-second environment scans guiding grasping and blocked by current lidar limitations like minimum range dead zones.

"We instantly realized Eyeonic's incredible precision and compact form could greatly accelerate development," said Dexterity CEO Samir Menon. "Seeing well past 10 meters provides ample time for motion planning."

Dexterity expects full deployment next year, with ambitious plans distributing swarms across North America's 13 million plus truck fleet to automate the laborious manual work still dominating yards. Each minute saved per rig delivers outsized savings while bolstering safety - promising ROI measured in weeks.

SiLC Poses Existential Threats Incumbents relying on mechanical assemblies and bulky components have cause for concern given the Eyeonic's svelte size and silent stable solid-state design without spinning parts prone to wear and tear. Autonomous drone fleets represent another early beachhead benefiting thanks to weight reductions.

"While radical improvements often take incumbents by surprise, agility and ecosystem partnerships should buffer damage," advised Asad Husain, CEO of AI chipmaker Mobiveil and veteran of disruption waves. "But complacency is ill-advised - we could witness meaningful shifts in market share within years."

Husain also sees ripples beyond robotics, with augmented reality glasses and even self-driving cars better configuring the new lidar arrays and custom ASICs towards their specific use cases.

Glimpse of the Future Ultimately, SiLC's innovations reflect maturing methodologies and exponential tech progress long championed by luminaries like Ray Kurzweil. Just as graphene and carbon nanotubes heralded an advanced materials age, mimicking optics in silicon foretells an imaging revolution.

"Photons rather than electrons interacting on chips unlocks a wealth of potential," said Asghari. "We're just scratching the tip leveraging 25+ years of telecom and silicon photonics research."

If novel medical applications like liquid biopsies analyzing blood samples on devices not unlike CD players emerge from SiLC’s foundry, Asghari promises robotics and allied fields will enjoy equally outsized benefits capitalizing on next-gen perception. Based on the Eyeonic Mini’s debut tour de force shrinking a formidable sensor into almost biscuit-sized proportions, machines may finally gain senses matching human visual acuity to unleash new realms of intelligent automation.

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