Low-Cost 3D Printed Lens Set to Improve Vehicle Radar Systems

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As we get closer to adopting self-driving vehicles around the world, safety systems, like crosswind stabilization, collision avoidance, and adaptive cruise control, are becoming more advanced than ever. But unfortunately, while many of these systems come standard with luxury vehicles, this isn’t the case for less high-end automobiles. 3D printing technology has been called on to enhance vehicle safety before, and now researchers with the University of Arizona (UA) have licensed new 3D technology to UA startup Lunewave, Inc. that could make advanced vehicle safety features more affordable for cars.

Cars that are equipped with driver assistance systems come with an array of expensive sensors, from ultrasonic and infrared to LIDAR and optic, but they are limited by things like weather and range. But imagine if there were a single device, no bigger than a Ping Pong ball, that could replace all of those sensors, and even improve upon existing automotive radar systems.

3D printed Luneburg lens. [Image: Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona]

Hao Xin, PhD, a professor in the UA Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering with the university’s College of Engineering who has experience with 3D printing research, worked with two research partners – postdoctoral research assistant Min Liang, PhD and assistant professor Siyang Cao, PhD – to develop a 3D printed version of the Luneburg lens, which is used to increase radar reflectivity, and a coding design that helps the lens ‘see’ better.

Xin and his team worked with Tech Launch Arizona (TLA), a UA office that protects the intellectual property coming out of the college, to commercialize the system. While TLA connects inventors with the business world, it also provides assistance with patent filing and negotiating licenses.

Bob Sleeper, Senior TLA Licensing Manager for the UA College of Engineering, said, “Aside from simply getting a patent, we look at it with a very broad set of glasses to see where else this technology might fit. If you can envision any technology with a lot of sensors looking at the world around it, this can replace some of those sensors.”

Lunewave is commercializing inventions that can use inexpensive, 3D printed Luneburg lenses to offer improved radar systems to the automotive industry. While Xin explained that most conventional automotive radars have a fairly narrow field of view, the Lunewave radar system, with a higher angular restoration, will be able to see the world that surrounds it in 360°.

The 3D printed Luneburg lens is combined with embedded electronics and/or metalized film dielectrics to make new and improved vehicle safety systems with more efficient scanning capabilities; the system can also save money by replacing more expensive sensors. It can also see longer distances than radars already in use on vehicles, and built-in radar capability interference avoids issues from same-frequency signals from other vehicle radars.

“These technologies have applications in sensing and detection, autonomous cars and drones, pollution, water vapor detection, as well as wireless communication. We see huge opportunity,” said Xin.

By using 3D printing technology to manufacture the lens, it will be more compact, lightweight, and affordable, which could help the technology be deployed in all vehicles, and not just the luxury ones.

Xin said, “We will have a much higher performance radar, but still at a much lower price.”

Xin and his research team spent over a year working on the technology before contacting TLA.

Through inquiries to automotive companies, they discovered that it was pretty desirable. Once they proved that they could make the thing as small and effective as they could, that’s when they stepped into our office,” Sleeper explained.

[Image: Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona]

Doug Hockstad, the Assistant VP of TLA, explained that when inventors call on TLA, they bring invention disclosures so the organization can determine if an idea could potentially become a viable, in-demand product; if so, TLA helps with the patent process and licensing options. The overall goal is for 60% of the invention disclosures presented to TLA to apply for a provisional patent.

We have two options: license to an existing company or build a company and license it there. At any point in the process, an inventor could say ‘I want to start a business around this,'” Hockstad explained.

After spending 20 years in the research field, Xin was looking forward to creating and marketing products, and felt that he could be more involved by forming a company and serving as the chief technology officer.

Xin said, “I really want to see some of my novel ideas and research go into practical applications. Science is nice, but it would be even better if you could turn your scientific research into tangible benefits that will save people’s lives.”

TLA helped the Lunewave team participate in the office’s NSF I-Corps program, and connected the researchers with entrepreneur and mentor-in-residence Steven Wood for ongoing consultations.

“No longer do customers have to accept broadband ‘one size fits all’ antennas. With Lunewave’s novel design, antennas are custom-made for specific operating frequencies and bandwidths,” Wood said. “These Luneburg lens antennas are quickly designed and sent to an additive manufacturing process to provide prospective clients with a fast solution.”

Lunewave is also working in the Arizona Center for Innovation incubator at UA’s Rita Road Tech Park Facility, with hopes to scale up the technology with an NSF STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) grant.

Sleeper said, “Lunewave has the technology and leadership to significantly change the way connected and autonomous vehicles ‘see’ the world around them, and the UA is excited for their future as they grow and apply this technology to the much broader internet-of-things market.”

Discuss in the Vehicle Safety forum at 3DPB.com.

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