Luminar, the newly public LIDAR company, is teaming up with the largest aircraft manufacturer in the world to bring its laser-guided mapping and perception technology to new heights.
LIDAR, the laser sensor that sends millions of laser points out per second and measures how long they take to bounce back, is seen as a key ingredient to autonomous driving. But it hasn’t seen as much traction in the world of aviation. Luminar and its new partner, the French aerospace giant Airbus, are out to fix that by applying the laser sensor’s 3D mapping capabilities to the aerospace company’s helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in the hopes of making flying a lot safer.
Specifically, Luminar’s work with Airbus will fall under the aircraft manufacturer’s two innovation-focused projects: its UpNext subsidiary and FlightLab, which uses flight testing as the “principal means of achieving proof of concept for a variety of future technologies developed at Airbus.” Engineers from both companies will work together to “enhance sensing, perception, and system-level capabilities to ultimately enable safe, autonomous flight,” the companies said.
This will be Luminar’s first foray into anything outside the world of autonomous vehicles, Austin Russell, the founder and CEO of Luminar, said. Russell said he sees linking up with Airbus as an extension of his mission of “making overall transportation safe and autonomous — it’s the same exact story.”
While the number of airplanes that crash every year has been steadily dropping, helicopter crashes — like the one that killed NBA star Kobe Bryant in 2020 — are becoming more common. The rate of fatal helicopter accidents per 100,000 flight hours jumped from 2016 to 2018, according to data released in March 2019 by the US Helicopter Safety Team, a volunteer team of government and industry leaders. The number of fatalities per 100,000 hours also rose.
Russell is convinced that Luminar can help prevent some of those fatal crashes. “A double-digit percentage of helicopter crashes happen by just landing on things like wires that are totally avoidable,” he said. “If you can actually just have a 3D map and see what’s going on hidden underneath you would be an improvement. Even some of the best pilots have a hard time being able to see these kinds of things.”
Luminar was founded by a then 17-year-old Russell in 2012 and counts among its backers Peter Thiel and Volvo, which will begin using Luminar technology to power autonomous driving in its cars beginning in 2022. Luminar also supplies Audi and the Toyota Research Institute, and it has announced partnerships with Mobileye and Daimler’s trucking division.
In addition to making giant passenger planes, Airbus also has an interest in small, battery-powered air taxis that are commonly referred to as “urban air mobility.” These would essentially be small helicopters with electric powertrains that could be used for short-hop flights within cities, such as Manhattan to JFK airport.
The aerospace company has funded several electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) projects over the years, including Vahana and CityAirbus. The former was an egg-shaped single-pilot eVTOL demonstrator, while the latter can carry four passengers and has a range of 60 miles.