Airbus taps Luminar to test how lidar could be used to make flying safer and autonomous
Luminar Technologies is expanding its lidar business beyond automotive and into aviation through a partnership with Airbus. The collaboration with the French aerospace giant, which was announced Monday morning, marks the latest in a string of partnership announcements between Luminar and companies like Daimler, Volvo and Mobileye. Until now, these have exclusively focused on applying its light detection and ranging radar to automated vehicles on the ground — not in the skies.
The partnership won’t immediately bring lidar into commercial aircraft. Unlike Luminar’s deal with Daimler, Mobileye and Volvo this is not a production contract, although the aim is that it will lead to one. Instead, the partnership is with Airbus’ UpNext subsidiary, which is focused on developing and eventually applying new technological breakthroughs to aviation. The effort will be folded into Airbus Flightlab, an ecosystem that offers access to flight test platforms across Airbus’ business lines, including commercial aircraft, helicopters, defense and space. Luminar and Airbus will develop and test how lidar can be used to enhance sensing, perception and system-level capabilities to ultimately enable safe, autonomous flight, the companies said.
“We’re able to directly re-apply what we’ve accomplished for the automotive industry into aviation, an established nearly $1 trillion industry,” Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell said in a statement Monday. “We believe that automation and safety enhancements will transform how we move across all modes of transport as we take our technology from roads to the skies. We look forward to accelerating our shared vision to define the future of flying.”
Lidar, which measures distance using laser light to generate a highly accurate 3D map of the world, is considered by most in the autonomous vehicle industry critical to commercial deployment. Automakers have also begun to view lidar as an important sensor to be used to expand the capabilities and safety of advanced driver assistance systems in new cars, trucks and SUVs available to consumers.
Airbus is interested in how Luminar’s lidar and perception stack can be used to automatically detect obstacles, a key step toward autonomous operation of aircraft such as urban air mobility vehicles. The companies said the sensor also has the potential to “substantially improve the safety of existing aircraft applications.”
Increasing helicopter safety is one of Airbus’ missions. The company said Monday it will introduce a number of new features to its helicopter Flightlab through a project code-named Vertex. These technologies, which include lidar and other sensors coupled with software for obstacle detection, fly-by-wire for enhanced auto-pilot and a touchscreen and head-worn display for inflight monitoring and control, aim to reduce helicopter pilot workload and increase safety. Airbus said that when combined, the system will be able to manage navigation and route preparation, automatic take-off and landing, as well as following a predefined flight path. The incremental integration of these technologies onto the helicopter Flightlab has begun ahead of a complete demonstration in 2023. Airbus said its Urban Air Mobility project will also benefit from this technology as a step toward autonomous flight.
Luminar, which burst onto the autonomous vehicle scene in April 2017 after operating for years in secrecy, became a publicly traded company in late 2020. The company announced in February that it would work with Volvo Cars to develop and eventually sell to other automakers an automated driving system for highways. The partnership, which is between Luminar and Volvo’s self-driving software subsidiary Zenseact, builds upon an existing relationship with Volvo. The two companies are combining their tech to create what Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell described as a “holistic autonomous vehicle stack” made for production vehicles. Volvo will be the first customer. Russell and Zenseact CEO Ödgärd Andersson said at the time that they plan to also offer this system to other automakers.
Last year, ahead of its public debut, Luminar also locked in a supplier deal to furnish Intel subsidiary Mobileye with lidar for its fleet of autonomous vehicles. Under that contract, Luminar’s lidar will be part of Mobileye’s first-generation fleet of driverless vehicles, which are being piloted in Dubai, Tel Aviv, Paris, China and Daegu City, South Korea.