Irish Times Innovation Award winner Arralis has maintained its rapid growth pace during the first half of the year.
In March, the radar and wireless communications technology specialist secured a €50 million investment from a consortium of Hong Kong-based investors that will allow it to expand its operations and add up to 25 new jobs.
And just last month it announced a valuable new contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) for its latest Leonis Ka band chipset, which will enable massive data rate communications speeds for commercial and science missions.
The company is also almost literally setting its sights on terrestrial matters as well with the autonomous car market being a particular area of focus. The opportunity there lies in the inadequacy of current in-car radar systems, according to Arralis chief technology officer, Mike Gleaves.
The company’s 94GHz frequency band chipset delivers higher resolutions and greater communications capabilities than other systems on the market and is uniquely well suited to meeting the requirements of the emerging autonomous car industry.
“The main issue for current radar systems for cars is that they are actually designed for automatic cruise control”, Gleaves explains.
“It’s just a narrow beam looking at the road ahead. In the autonomous situation, you need as close as possible to 180 degree coverage at the front of the car. You also need to be able to detect small obstacles. Pedestrians present an issue as do children. It is difficult to see motorcycles if they’re ahead of the car.
“It’s easy to detect them at the side because there is a large surface area to see but at the front they are not much wider than their tyres. You need to be able to scan at least 200 metres ahead and that means you must have radar.”
He points out that Google is working with a system known as Lidar for its cars.
“This is essentially a laser scanner”, he adds.
"That's great in California where they don't get rain but if you are driving on the M7 from Dublin to Limerick and it starts to rain the car has to pull over. Radar is much more of an all-weather system. You need radar mounted at the front of the car and you can have optical for the rest of it."
He quotes no less a figure than Tesla's Elon Musk who supports this view: "I don't think you need Lidar. I think you can do this all with passive optical and then with maybe one forward radar. I think that completely solves it without the use of Lidar. I'm not a big fan of Lidar, I don't think it makes sense in this context."
But there is a problem. Radar tends to be expensive and power hungry.
“Prices for car radar range from €500 to €3,000 depending on the level of sophistication and performance required”, says Gleaves.
“I can’t see many manufacturers being interested in making them for autonomous cars just yet. Quite frankly, we solve the problem with great difficulty. We have done it in two ways. We had to design a chipset that performs and draws minimal power from the car. They will be used on electric vehicles so we have to ensure that the power consumption of the unit is very low. We have also developed a much smaller antenna.”
The Arralis antenna has been patented and the company has built a working prototype. The system is based on a rotman lens – a beamforming network which allow radar surveillance systems to see targets in multiple directions without physically moving the antenna system. The antenna is capable of producing multiple beams which can be steered without changing the orientation of the antenna.
“Our system continuously fires six to 10 narrow beams and detects objects between the beams with no moving parts”, says Gleaves.
Add the Arralis chipset and you have a highly effective radar for autonomous cars. And that’s another competitive differentiator for the company.
“Manufacturers haven’t got the skills to put the antenna onto the chip”, he says. “It is very difficult to put an antenna and this chipset together. Some companies are trying to put them together but the chip manufacturers and antenna manufacturers are largely staying out of the space. That’s why radars for autonomous cars are not up to standard at the moment.
“One company is putting lots of cameras and a radar on its cars, it’s a solution but it’s expensive and power hungry. We have solved these problems and we’ll have a demonstrator product ready for the automotive industry early next year.”