What is iPad Pro’s LiDAR tech and how does it work?

Written by Anuj Bhatia
| New Delhi |

Updated: March 21, 2020 5:59:52 pm

Apple’s latest iPad Pro comes with a LiDAR scanner which can be used to measure the distance between two objects.

When Apple launched a new iPad Pro on Wednesday, there was one particular feature that drew everyone’s interest along with the keyboard which now has a proper trackpad and the dual-camera system. This is also the first Apple device to feature a LiDAR scanner.

But what is LiDAR, and why has Apple used this sensor on the new iPad?

What is LiDAR?

In simple terms, LiDAR stands for light detection and ranging. It is basically a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure distances to the subject. These light pulses – when combined with other data, generate accurate, high-resolution three-dimensional information of the object.

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How is it different from Sonar, Radar and LiDAR

Like LiDAR, Sonar and Radar too can reveal information about an object’s shape, size, direction and height, but they are different in the type of signal they use.

Sonar (short for sound navigation and ranging) relies on sound waves to detect objects and hence is usually used to detect objects underwater. Meanwhile, Radar (short for radio detection and ranging) uses radio waves to determine an object’s distance or range. Radio waves can work over a long distance and perform better in dusty conditions.

Lidar, what is LiDAR sensor, Lidar system in iPad Pro, Lidar 3D camera, Lidar vs ToF, Lidar sensor drones, Lidar sensor smartphones, Lidar sensor self driving cars, apple LiDAR sensors are commonly found in self-driving cars, like this one. (Image credit: Screenshot/Waymo)

Where is LiDAR being used?

LiDAR is typically used to collect high-density data in order to produce high-resolution maps. LiDAR sensors are being fitted under drones to create readings of the terrain, transmission lines, buildings, and trees. Experts say LiDAR accurately maps the ground beneath and can provide a highly accurate 3D model when compared with terrestrial sampling methods. This technology is mostly used for ground-based surveys.

Apart from aerial surveys, the LiDAR sensor is the most important component in self-driving cars. The LiDAR sensor provides continuous 360 degrees of visibility and accurate depth information.

LiDAR was first used on a spacecraft during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971, when astronauts mapped the surface of the moon.

Apple believes its LIDAR scanner will immensely benefit Augmented Reality (AR) experiences.

What is the use of LiDAR in iPad Pro?

The LiDAR here is essentially a Time-of-flight sensor as seen on devices like the Galaxy Note 10+, Galaxy S20 Ultra and Huawei Mate 30 Pro. But it appears that Apple has used a custom LiDAR scanner, which is slightly more advanced than a ToF system.

Apple says the new LiDAR sensor can measure an object up to five meters (16 feet) away. In contrast, a ToF sensor on existing smartphones can only detect objects at a maximum distance of around two metres. Meanwhile, Apple claims its LiDAR system can operate “at the photon level at nano-second speeds.”

Apple believes its LIDAR scanner will immensely benefit Augmented Reality (AR) apps. For those of you who are not familiar, AR refers to a technology that overlays information and virtual objects on real-world scenes in real-time. It uses the existing environment and adds information to it to make a new artificial environment.

Apple has been pushing the use of AR on the iPad and iPhone for quite some time. Apple’s App Store currently offers many AR apps, many of which are targeted at the student community.

For developers though, the LiDAR sensor on the iPad Pro is useful to create future applications. The system takes advantage of “ARKit,” a toolkit for developers to create powerful AR apps. We can expect Apple’s proprietary “Measure” app and apps from third-party developers will try to take advantage of the LiDAR scanner on the new iPad Pro.

There is no word on how the LiDAR sensor will improve photography on the iPad Pro.

Apple has been pushing the use of AR on the iPad and iPhone for quite some time.

…but LiDAR isn’t perfect

However, the LiDAR sensor also comes with certain disadvantages. LiDAR can measure the distance to surrounding objects up to 5 meters away, but won’t fare well in identifying objects in the vicinity. Also, it can’t perform well in fog, rain, snow and dusty weather. LiDAR also struggles to detect a glass wall or door, which is why smartphone manufacturers and self-driving cars makers use LiDAR along with secondary cameras and sensors. As in the case of the iPad Pro, Apple has added a 12MP wide and a 10MP ultrawide camera on the back, alongside the LiDAR sensor.

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Will Apple add LiDAR to the iPhone 12?

Now that the iPad Pro comes with a LiDAR sensor, it’s likely that Apple will introduce the technology to the iPhone 12 which is scheduled for launch later this year. Recent reports suggest that Apple is working on a new AR app, codenamed “Gobi”, which will allow users to preview products/items in a store before purchasing them. Apple is also rumoured to be working on a pair of AR glasses, though there is no fixed timeline of launch. The launch of the iPad Pro with a LiDAR sensor could be the beginning of something big.

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