PulsedLight Helps Drones Fly Safely

Founder Q&A By Tierney O’Dea / January 28, 2015

Bend-based PulsedLight’s first product is LIDAR-Lite, a small sensor that makes high performance distance measurements at low cost. If you’ve heard of LIDAR before (it’s short for “light radar,” a method of measuring distance by illuminating a target and analyzing the reflection), it might have been as the robust mapping sensor on the top of Google’s self driving cars that cost as much as the car itself, or as an often used tool at NASA.

LIDAR-Lite brings the technology into the hands of makers, who are consistently developing a wide array of applications. It plugs into open source controller platforms like Arduino and Raspberry Pi and retails for $89. PulsedLight CTO Bob Lewis developed the proprietary algorithm, running on chips made in Oregon, that makes this high performance possible while keeping costs affordable for a new audience.

Startup: PulsedLight
Started: 2011
Founders: CEO Dennis Corey & CTO Bob Lewis
Employees: 3
Headquarters: Bend, OR

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What does PulsedLight do?
We are an optical sensor technology company that enables distance measurement devices to be smaller, lighter, less expensive, and still be high performance. LIDAR-Lite is an optical sensor that fits that criteria. Our system is a hybrid between standard “time of flight” sensors, and technologies used in radar. In contrast to conventional systems, we use software for signal processing instead of relying solely on hardware.

How does LIDAR-Lite work?
The LIDAR-Lite sends out a series of up to 255 pulses every second and each pulse is encoded with a random code, in essence a fingerprint. We can then find that signal in the noise to produce accurate measurements from a 0 to 50 meter range. A lot of other rangefinders don’t work at close range because they have to wait for signal return. LIDAR-Lite and our other products in the pipeline can transmit and receive at the same time. We can work outdoors too, while some of the other low range finders have trouble with that. All the existing options for distance measurement are either inadequate for the application or really expensive and cost prohibitive. Our nearest competitor costs $300 and is roughly twice the size, three times the weight, and uses more power.

Where did you get the name?
Chris Anderson of drone company 3D Robotics came up with the name. Our technology is part of a fusion of sensor technologies which allows autonomous craft to navigate through space without relying on GPS. In the drone space there are two primary applications, altimetry for auto-landing, and collision avoidance – the holy grail for everyone working on getting drones integrated safely into the national airspace. The technology is sort of magical in the sense that we emit power measured in watts and then detect energy coming back in picowatts. To me that’s just ridiculous, but it works!

And how did you come up with the idea?
Bob has been in the optoelectronics field for 30 years. When you start looking at the needs of distance measurement, there wasn’t a good solution in the lower cost range. So he started evaluating the existing patent landscape and developed a technology that accomplished that goal without infringement on other patents. We met at the 2007 BVC Conference where he presented a hand-held rangefinder for construction that was based on this tech. It took me a little while to have the light bulb moment and realize that it could be used commercially in lots of different ways.

My background is in product development, marketing and business development in the fields of aeronautics, telecommunications, and pre-clinical medical research devices. After thinking about the technology, I realized there’s a lot of applications where having a small, accurate sensor would be very beneficial – like robotics, drones, pretty much any application where you needed to know where you are in space. The design is evolving into a higher speed system with 2000 readings per second. This expands the possible applications into the realm of an inexpensive scanning LIDAR system for mapping and other applications where high resolution data is desired.

How are you funded?
Until November 2014, we were solely bootstrapped and crowdfunded. The maker market has been great for us because we ran a crowdfunding campaign last year that was very successful and allowed us to build our first round of sensors. It also confirmed for us that we were on to something and that’s the best thing about a crowdfunding campaign. We get more positive feedback when a site like Sparkfun puts 300 units online and they sell out in less than 24 hours. We closed our first round of funding in November 2014 and became a C corp.

Are you currently raising money?
We are fairly self sufficient at this point and might look for more funding for some of the R&D projects as well as expand our marketing and customer support operations. So far, the Central Oregon investment community haven’t taken a large interest in our work yet, thinking it looks too much like a science project and that scares them off.

Part of that is maybe our inability to describe is as well as we should, but another concern is that they think we should focus on just one market. But with technology like this we’ve learned that with so many potential applications, what we need to do is focus on the core technology, and let our partners develop the applications. Our whole point in dealing with the maker community first before specifically going into other markets was simply because it’s such a creative group. Here’s this thing that takes measurements and plugs into an Arduino, go do something with it. One maker attached it to glasses as a possible tool for the blind, others created a musical instrument.

What are some of your challenges?
The current challenge is just producing enough, keeping up with demand. We are fortunate that we have a contract manufacturer here in Bend, SisTech, who has significant capabilities. They’ve got lines that run 28000 parts per hour each, an amazing success story for Central Oregon. Right now we are always in a little behind the growth curve. We are seeing rapid growth and realizing the need for more resources -this is probably pretty common for most growing companies.

What’s happening with your company now?
We’re currently producing about 2,000 units every 6 weeks, and we would like to get that up to 5,000 units a month. Soon we’ll move from a coworking space to our own office and most likely add to our team in the near future. We have a product roadmap with lower cost and higher performance products on the way. They include a small LED version that will be competitive with ultrasonic sensors, and without all the trouble of noise interference. We are releasing a two kilometer range product soon for companies that want to build high performance ranging systems.

What’s next?
With autonomous vehicles and robotic development hitting the mainstream, small, accurate, and inexpensive sensors are key to their continued development. One of the founders of iRobot says the greatest barrier in the cost of their products is the sensors. I do know for a fact that there are people at Apple and Google who surreptitiously purchased LIDAR-Lite. When you get orders that have “1 Infinite Loop Cupertino, CA” shipping addresses, it’s sort of obvious. We’ll see if anything happens with that. Eventually, as we go through size and cost reductions it would be very possible to fit our technology in a smart phone or tablet. We have many partners already in the unmanned robotic industry and they are doing great stuff with our tech. Bob has come up with a lot of unique ways of applying our technology to their problems and our system is configurable to for all types of possibilities.

Tierney O’Dea
Tierney O’Dea is a writer and media consultant. She started her career at NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw and worked in various forms of media for national organizations including Scholastic, Yahoo, and NASA. She also served as an executive for two startups, Slooh.com and Medic Mobile, and as a mentor for entrepreneurs in Austin, TX. In her free time, she enjoys downhill skiing, hiking, photography, and astronomy.