Soon cars will truly sense their environment

June 06, 2014 // By Jan Provoost, imec
Cars will soon be able to see and identify the objects all around them in all circumstances, including pitch-black night, heavy rain or deep fog. They will automatically adapt their speed to the surrounding traffic. They will help you change lanes. And they’ll stand on the brakes when a vulnerable road user crosses your path. All this thanks to new developments in radar chip technology. Making traffic more safe for everyone, and bringing autonomous driving a step closer.

Imec, the European nanotech center in Leuven (Belgium), recently made the world's first 79GHz radar transmitter in plain digital 28nm CMOS with an output power above 10dBm. In non-technical speak, that is the first high-resolution radar chip for the masses.

There are already radar chips out there. But they are fabricated in low volumes and in dedicated technologies that make them quite expensive. They are mainly used in military applications, and are beginning to find their way into more expensive vehicles.

Now, with this news, we may see the radars for the masses. Radars that are made in today’s mainstream chip technology. That can be mass-produced at a low cost. Radars that are so small you could easily integrate them invisibly. In a car, but also in a bike helmet, a detection camera, or infrastructure such as automatic lights or door openers.

The most disrupting application however might lie in the field of robotics. Autonomous drones, both aerial and ground-based, can be deployed to deliver parcels, automate warehousing, to clean and maintain, for inspection and surveillance. High-resolution millimeter-wave radar would enable truly autonomous navigation for these robots in all circumstances.

What is a radar chip?

In your smartphone, there is a set of chips and antennae that take care of the wireless communication. They send out information as a radio wave, and conversely capture radio waves of a certain frequency and convert these back into digital information.

These same electromagnetic waves that we use for communication can also make a radar. The signal that is transmitted is always partially reflected on the surrounding objects. If we can receive that echo and compute the distance the signal has travelled, we have a radar: a means to sense the objects around us.

Wireless communication is widespread, very accessible, and wildly popular. That is partly because manufacturers have agreed on standards, so that all kinds of appliances can communicate. The same is now

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