SD of Corporate Development at Cepton
Our UAV Interview Series is receiving great responses day by day, and as usual today we have a high-profile drone and LiDAR expert turned up for our interview. Let us introduce you Mr. Wei.
Mr. Wei leads business strategy and partnership development activities at Cepton. In the past 3 years, Wei helped the Cepton team establish a strong market presence in automotive, industrial, and mapping markets.
Wei has a broad product and engineering background in the fields of LiDAR, ADAS, Digital Maps, and Navigation. Before joining Cepton, Mr. Wei led product management at TeleNav and solutions engineering at Quanergy Systems.
He holds an M.Sc degree in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University and B. Sc degree in Electrical Engineering from Southeast University. In our interview, we discuss in-depth with Mr. Wei about his company, drone sensors they produce, advice for fellow pilots, the current and future state of drones and LiDAR technology, and so on.
If you love what you read so far, then there is no doubt you will enjoy thisexclusive interview. Without wasting any further time, let us get started!
Welcome Mr. Wei, Tell us about yourself and your background?
I am responsible for corporate strategy and partnerships at Cepton. I trained as an electrical engineer at Stanford University. In the past 10 years, I have spent most of my time in product and engineering roles in the field of LiDAR, maps, and automotive applications.
Tell us about your company, what it is, and your team there?
Cepton is a 3D sense solutions provider founded in 2016 as well as led by market veterans. We specialize in the mass industry commercialization of higher performance, high-quality LiDAR solutions to the security, automotive, industrial, transport infrastructure, mapping, and IoT markets.
What are some things you have done, to make your business stand out in the crowd?
Cepton is among the few companies which truly understand research, engineering, and manufacturing. Our patented LiDAR technology, Micro Motion Technology (MMT TM ), delivers outstanding resolution and detection range, affordability, and reliability to enable state-of-the-art perception in the rapidly-growing markets for smart and autonomous machines.
Our approach to making LiDAR is very much like Tesla’s approach to making batteries. We only use high availability, high maturity components, and materials inside our sensor, so we outpace our competition and excel in both LiDAR performance and cost-efficiency.
What type of drones and gear are you flying?
As a sensor maker, we need to use UAVs to validate the performance of our sensor. We have a quadcopter and a VTOL for testing purposes.
Tell us about some of the drone products you produce. What is your biggest seller?
Our Sora-P60Lite LiDAR sensor is one of the popular sensors for UAV applications. Many customers are adopting this sensor for mapping applications, thanks to its unique architecture, superior performance, and lightweight design.
Sora-P60Lite has a compact and rotation-free design, ideal for both fixed-wing and fast-moving rotary-wing drone applications. With a phenomenal 380 Hz frame rate and a max detection distance of 200 meters, it delivers unparalleled resolution for fast-moving UAVs at a great distance.
Who are most of your clients, or your most common types of projects?
As a LiDAR company, we started with a strategic focus on automotive markets. The high volume from the automotive marketplace will drive our sensor cost below $1,000 over the next few years. However, we have seen tremendous opportunities in the non-automotive markets as well, such as mapping, security, smart cities, etc.
Today we have a global customer base across these markets. In the UAV market, most of our customers are using our sensors for UAV mapping solutions.
What advice would you give to others who want to get started flying drones?
Get trained, obey rules, and bring the battery.
What advances in drone technology are you excited about?
VTOL is getting more momentum for sure – a lot of our customers used to be satisfied with quadcopters, but now everyone wants to get the mapping job done faster. We anticipate the global VTOL shipment to climb up rapidly. And, our Sora-P60Lite sensor supports a 380 Hz frame rate, which makes it a perfect fit for these fast machines.
What is the market for LiDAR technology right now? How has it evolved since you started your business?
There have been a lot of investments in the LiDAR market for cost-effective automotive LiDAR solutions, and more than 100 companies are developing a variety of different LiDAR technologies.
With the expected rise in the maturity of the product and a substantial decline in price over another 2 to 3 years, LiDAR tech is in the mass market adoption threshold across many industries.
Industrial robots, new mobility, automotive, and UAVs/mapping are already popular markets for LiDAR, and when Cepton was founded, the 3D LiDAR market was more automotive-focused.
However, now we see exciting emerging LiDAR applications, such as transport infrastructure, security, rail, and smart cities.
We expect tremendous growth in the LiDAR market over another few years. But at the exact time, the needs on LiDAR cost, maturity, and performance will get more critical.
Thus, fewer LiDAR companies can keep up, resulting in a bit of consolidation and an organic concentration of LiDAR expertise amongst a smaller group of companies.
In the airborne LiDAR market, once dominated by a few traditional companies that produce costly sensors, there is a strong demand for lightweight, low-cost LiDAR for the fast-growing UAV applications.
However, most LiDAR companies are not entirely ready for this, and there is no ideal UAV LiDAR solution yet.
To date, there is no such concept as mass production for airborne LiDAR – no one is shipping tens of thousands of sensors per year in this market.
Chances are pretty good that Cepton becomes the first LiDAR company to deliver mass-produced airborne LiDAR sensors, from the same automated manufacturing lines which also produce our automotive LiDAR sensors.
What is Sora-P60Lite and how it works?
Sora-P60Lite is purpose-built to deliver lightweight, long-range, and ultra-high-resolution imaging for UAVs. Powered with Cepton’s patented Micro Motion Technology, Sora-P60Lite distinguishes itself in the UAV market with its rugged, compact, and rotation-free design, ideal for both fixed-wing and fast-moving rotary-wing drone applications.
It weighs less than 600 grams and can be mounted on the UAV with an optical window facing downwards to scan the ground, objects, forestry, power lines, etc. Usually, our customers integrate the sensor with a GPS and IMU to collect all the sensor data during each flight and then geo-reference the data to produce a high-fidelity 3D map.
Most of the low-cost rotating sensors only have a 10-20Hz frame rate, which is not too bad for quadcopters moving around 5m/sec. However, the data gets too sparse if these sensors are mounted on a fixed-wing UAV moving at 20-30m/sec. Sora-P60Lite features a phenomenal 380 Hz frame rate to deliver very dense and uniformly distributed point cloud, making it possible to generate high resolution maps for fast moving drones.
The range of Sora-P60Lite is 200 meters on low reflectivity targets. It is almost twice the range of most of the low-cost LiDAR sensors, allowing UAVs to fly up to the FAA ceiling and even higher in special zones.
In summary, Sora-P60Lite is designed for UAV applications to enable ultra-high-resolution imaging at a much higher speed and altitude, with significantly increased coverage as well.
What are some of the innovative ways you’ve seen drones being used?
Many drone companies are now able to deliver drone solutions at higher velocities and altitudes, with longer flight durations.
With their performance improved, drones are now deployed in many innovative ways to not only help us better understand the world but also help make it a safer, better place.
Drones can help empower populations in underserved areas, for example, by enabling emergency response, delivering medical supplies and providing internet access.
They have been used to help preserve our natural ecosystem, tracking animals in conservations to conduct research without disturbing habitats, flagging poaching activities and collecting waste in the ocean.
We have also seen drones being used to protect people’s privacy and safety – apart from providing comprehensive surveillance to security companies, they are also being used by law enforcement for crime prevention.
There are also large predator drones to detect, chase and capture intruding drones. Other newer drone applications span from tourism and hospitality, to fitness and sports, and to entertainment.
We think perception and autonomy are the future of drones. With the help of 3D lidars, drones can see, think, and act. However, and this is an important distinction, the perception of lidars is anonymized so that privacy is safeguarded.
What are your thoughts on the future of automated drones for mapping applications?
Autonomy is coming to many industries. My personal feeling is that it will happen much faster in the UAV industry because most of the fundamental technologies are ready.
Lightweight material, advanced battery technology, multispectral sensing, and high-performance computing are all progressing at unprecedented speeds. We think autonomous UAV will come into play initially for mapping and inspection applications, and then the more capable drones will play a vital role in transport, search, rescue, and so forth.
What are some particularly unforgettable drone events you’ve participated?
Five years back, I was invited to a party organized by AeroTestra during their early days. They talked a lot about their vision about industrial drones and VTOLs and showed the exotic designs of their drones. That was an eye-opening experience that triggered my interest in working in a related field.
I firmly believe the UAV market will take off in a few years. In the early days of Cepton, I shared my passion for UAVs and LiDAR with the CEO and founder of Cepton, and we decided to start a line of LiDAR products for UAVs.
For companies that are using drones and LiDAR technology in combination, what steps can they take to protect themselves against financial liability?
Understanding regulations, standards, and the ecosystem are equally important. Companies can make the mistake of isolating themselves and only focus on revenue generation. They need to fully understand the financial responsibilities and social responsibilities when sending a fleet of drones with advanced sensors into the sky.