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Australian research helping self-driving cars get on the road

Researchers from the Australian National University and TMOS, an Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence, have developed a highly sensitive self-powered single photon detector that could be used to make self-driving cars safer and more energy efficient.

A fast, single-photon Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) is far more sensitive than other forms of LIDARs, allowing information be to be perceived earlier, and in far more detail, especially in low light or poor visibility conditions. By detecting signals earlier, the AI technology in the driver’s seat has more time to make the decisions necessary to prevent an accident. Many previous accidents involving self-driving cars have been a result of the car not being able to identify unexpected objects in a timely manner, such as pedestrians and bicycles.

Until now, single photon detectors have required an external power source or cryogenic cooling, adding to the bulk and weight of the sensor and limiting its applications. These larger, heavier sensors consume more energy, increasing costs and emissions.

In research published in Advanced Materials, the team at TMOS have demonstrated how III-V compound semiconductor nanowires have shown tremendous potential for developing high-speed single photon level detection due to their unique electrical and optical properties, as well as flexibility of device design.

Practical applications extend beyond autonomous vehicles. Even Apple’s iPhone now implement LIDAR technology.

Co-lead author on the research, from TMOS, Yi Zhu says, “The future applications of this new device could be almost limitless. We’ll see it used in space exploration, medical diagnostics, and quantum computing.”

While the technology is still in early stages, the team is confident that it maps out a pathway towards low-cost, high sensitivity, self-powered photodetectors.

Co-lead author, Vidur Raj also from TMOS, says, “the next step to seeing this technology realized is to optimize the device design to further improve its speed. That’s where our focus for 2022 will be.”

Lead researcher of the project, Professor Lan Fu says, “In the long term, we will leverage our broad research expertise on compound semiconductor nanowire materals and devices to design new detector structures such as single photon avalanche photodiodes and develop chip-scale, multi-pixel imaging arrays.”

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