Industry Pioneers: A Conversation with David Hall

A 563Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

The Formative Years
I remember the first time I visited a Velodyne booth at a laser scanning conference. Their sensor did not look anything like the others. This was in their start-up days as a LiDAR sensor manufacturer and it was clear that they did not have the same roots as the tripod–based laser scanning systems, but I’m getting ahead of the story.

"I was always interested in electronics, even before college. In high school, it seemed as though I could build almost anything," David Hall recalls. He continued, "I happened to attend boarding school, where they had excellent facilities including a ZAP lab (an electronics lab), where different students contributed to all kinds of electronic, optical and mechanical experimentations."

Early on, David experimented with all kind of things that oscillated by design… or by accident. He had access to early photodiodes and remote controls, similar technology and concepts to what was used for robo-wars and battle bots, and certainly the DARPA Grand Challenge, but it was David’s grandfather who was an inventor in the printing business. He invented color scanning machines for automated color separation of RGB. David recalls, "He taught me a lot about electronics and mechanics and I truly looked up to him."

In 1974, David Hall earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Case Western Reserve University. Immediately after graduating, he ran a machine shop and began to design machines for the medical industry. In 1978, he invented a hand-held tachometer; he provided the PCB board with the "intelligence" to another company that packaged the actual product and sold it. It has been selling for more than 30 years.

"In 1983, I moved to California and founded Velodyne Acoustics, Inc.," David recalls. He notes, "We have been making high-end, distortion-free subwoofers for 32 years and have sold millions of those. We are still selling them and we have a pretty good following, especially from high-end audiophiles in Europe."

The Achievement
"I first worked with LiDAR during the DARPA Grand Challenge 2004–2005," David remembers. Announced in 2002 the Challenge was to design a driverless vehicle that would navigate a 150 mile course through the desert. None of the vehicles entered in 2004 were successful. "It became clear that StereoVision was not sufficient to see all the objects all of the time. We needed a sensor that could see 360, worked day and night, and operate in real time," David noted.

"The original idea for LiDAR came from other participants, but I took the opportunity to translate the concept into a useful sensor that, today, virtually everyone in the self-driving car business is using," David commented. And so the Velodyne LiDAR was born.
David Hall, Founder and CEO of Velodyne Acoustics, Inc. with two of David’s many inventions: Velodyne’s HDL-32E real-time, 3D LiDAR Scanner and a pair of high-end reference headsets from his Audio Division.

The Future
David believes we are at the beginning of what will be an explosive growth curve. He sees three-dimensional mobile and aerial mapping taking off, especially with the help of smaller mobile platforms and with SLAM indoors, or in areas with difficult GPS access. Velodyne is seeing a variety of other commercial applications involving robotics, security, vehicle safety systems and, of course, autonomous vehicles.

David actually thought we would be further ahead with respect to self-driving cars, given that during the DARPA Grand Challenge cars were already driving themselves. He notes, "It has taken somewhat longer for carmakers to hop on the bandwagon. Only in the last year have they fully embraced autonomous and automated driving publicly. Apart from the auto industry, Google has been a visionary player, working on this since 2010–with Velodyne’s LIDAR sensors on all three generations of its vehicles."

David did not anticipate that there would be such a big market for mobile mapping. David commented, "Virtually everybody and their brother are mapping the world, and for proper 3D environmental modeling, companies like Microsoft (for Bing Maps) and Nokia (for Here Maps) are using Velodyne’s HDL-32E LiDAR sensor."

David believes that major advancements in data storage have been made over the last 10 years and have definitely shaped the industry, as we see it. Easy access to data storage has made it much more feasible to concurrently record the millions of points per second measured with a LiDAR, in parallel with all the data recorded from other sensors like GPS and cameras.

David believes that for the industry to grow, the most pressing need is to be able to provide low-cost LiDAR sensors, which he is working on. The Velodyne’s LiDAR Puck (VLP-16) at $7999 is only the start: For the automotive industry Velodyne’s next generation sensors will be even more affordable by another factor of at least 10. He predicts, "LiDAR will have… a big impact, not only for mapping and 3D environmental modeling, but for the automotive industry, as a tool for selflocalization within pre-recorded maps. LiDAR might even render GPS obsolete or at least push GPS into a backup role."

As the CEO of Velodyne with three different divisions David does not have much time for hobbies. "Being an inventor and running my own company actually enables me to combine my hobbies with my business interests," David notes, "Recently I purchased a boat yard in Alameda, California, where I can work on my experimental, self-stabilizing boat. We watched the America’s Cup from the boat last summer, in the San Francisco Bay. The boat has already been featured on the Discovery Channel and in Wired Magazine."

Early on, David was a CAT II bicycle racer, which is what inspired the tachometer invention. In the winter, he likes to ski, but essentially, as an inventor, David says there is very little separation between inventing and one’s hobbies–the mind is always working out something.

When asked if he had ever considered switching careers David noted, "I’ve actually never had a real job–that is, being employed by somebody else. I started with operating the machine shop and began developing inventions that led to different successful businesses within Velodyne. Switching careers was never on my mind."

David notes that Velodyne’s LiDAR sensors were invented primarily to enable 3D, real-time vision for self-driving vehicles during the DARPA Grand Challenge. Using LiDAR for mapping was somewhat surprising to him, and that got him curious about the history of mapping. What he found was that mapping is very closely related to the early days of exploring the world. David comments, "There’s great excitement in it. Successful explorers always had good mapmakers on board. It’s almost Darwinian, with a "mapping gene" surviving during that period of exploration and colonization, which means, it’s in all of us."

"The enthusiasm I have seen in the mapping world using LiDAR–implementing it on unmanned aerial vehicles, coming up with SLAM algorithms to map where GPS doesn’t work, and so on–is very similar to the excitement that I feel when I invent something new," David notes.

Thanks, David for your insight and creativity.

Gene Roe is the Managing Editor and Co-Founder of LiDAR News.

A 563Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE