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US University's Create ElectroPhotonic Systems for Autonomous Vehicles with $4.8M IARPA Project

Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) is funding a $4.8 million project spearheaded by Boston University College of Engineering, the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Lightmatter.

The project’s charter is to develop an Electro-Photonic Computing (EPiC) solution for Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), solving one of the biggest hurdles AVs face today – delivering high performance, low latency computing power that is also energy efficient. According to Fortune Business Insights, the global AV market is projected to grow to an $11 billion industry by 2028; however, a significant barrier to accomplishing that growth is the availability of an on-board computing system that does not negatively impact vehicle range and battery life. Advancements in EPiC solutions are crucial for overcoming this challenge.

"The Autonomous Vehicle industry needs to overcome this major technical hurdle in order to improve driving range truly -- having powerful enough on-board computing power to support trillions of calculations per second, without consuming extreme amounts of energy," says Lightmatter Chief Scientist Darius Bunandar. "We're thrilled to be teaming up with Harvard, Boston University, and IARPA to fix that issue with Lightmatter's Electro-Photonic Computing solutions."

IARPA funds the project under the Microelectronics in Support of Artificial Intelligence (MicroE4AI) program. Dr. Darius Bunandar leads the Lightmatter team, Prof. Ajay Joshi leads the Boston University team, and Prof. Vijay Janapa Reddi leads the Harvard SEAS team.

How it works:

AVs utilize a myriad of sensors that generate data, requiring trillions of calculations per second to operate safely. Sensors may include RADAR, LIDAR, cameras, and other driver assistance devices. As a result, low-power consumption is a crucial challenge facing the AV market to deliver a competitive vehicle range and performance.

Increasing the number—or the resolution—of sensors is needed to deliver Level 4 and higher autonomous capability. However, deploying more sensor units in AVs is not an option. It would increase power usage of current transistor-based computers, which already consume a significant fraction of the power available to the vehicle.

In the past, computing performance improvements guaranteed by technology scaling enabled incremental enhancements of the computational capacity of transistor-based computers. However, a slowing rate of improvement based on technology scaling is creating a widening gap between compute performance and system need. This means that deploying advanced algorithms, such as deep learning in AVs, requires a new paradigm in computer design that exploits innovative architectures and radically novel physics.

The team’s hybrid electro-photonic approach has been motivated by the development of photonic chips that compute using photons, not electrons, at speeds on the order of tera operations per second, while consuming much less energy. A critical competitive feature of the team’s approach is fabricating photonic chip-based compute systems using standard semiconductor fabrication and OSAT processes within existing manufacturing facilities.

In the proposed EPiC system, photonics is used to perform large matrix computations, while electronics performs non-linear operations and storage. In AVs the EPiC system is fully integrated with the sensors, and together perform perception, mapping, and planning while overcoming the power and performance limitations of electronics-only computers.

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