UC Berkeley researchers present 3D imaging laser technology at conference

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A new development from UC Berkeley researchers aims to make 3D imaging laser technology more accessible by scaling it down to an affordable chip-sized package.

The new 3D imaging system is a collaborative project among professors and graduate students in UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering that has been in development since late 2011. Last week, the team presented its work at the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics in San Jose to hundreds of other experts in the field from around the world.

The system uses LIDAR — a 3D imaging technology that gauges the distance from an object by measuring changes in the wavelengths of reflected laser light. According to the researchers, the system integrates electronics and optics on a single chip and uses the frequency-modulated continuous wave type of LIDAR, which has a frequency that varies linearly with time. This type of laser beam provides high-resolution range and velocity information.

Google’s driverless cars and Microsoft Kinect currently operate through the use of a 3D LIDAR imaging system. 3D cameras are also already in use — to record crime and accidents on roadways in the United Kingdom and to prevent elevator doors from closing on people, among other uses.

However, the researchers at UC Berkeley are working to develop an improved system because they see certain limitations with existing 3D imaging laser technology.

“3D cameras already exist on the market, but as a student, I don’t have access to them yet,” said Behnam Behroozpour, a UC Berkeley graduate student involved in the project. “They’re too expensive and bulky for me to use.”

Google’s driverless cars carry a 3D camera on their roofs, which costs around $70,000, according to Behroozpour. The new system his team is developing aims to consolidate the technology into a microchip for use in a phone or car and be significantly less expensive.

“The key is that we’re actually building a cheaper sensor,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Phillip Sandborn, who specializes in the optical design component of the project. “It could make a really big impact on scientific research.”

Sandborn added that increased accessibility of this technology could make way for more applications of the 3D imaging laser system, including uses in archaeological digs and self-driving cars.

Bernhard Boser, a UC Berkeley engineering professor on the project, said he was hopeful about this new development and the future of 3D imaging technology.

“When I was younger, the supercomputer was as large as a house and cost millions of dollars,” Boser said. “In the same way that supercomputers were made smaller, we are hoping we can make 3D imaging technology smaller, cheaper, and therefore more accessible to the average person.”

Contact Abby Madan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @abby_madan.