(Image courtesy of Richard Przybyla).

TDK Acquires Startup That Squeezed Sonar into a Chip

TDK said on Wednesday that it is buying Chirp Microsystems, a startup that developed an ultrasonic sensor that can precisely measure the distance to objects but is small and efficient enough to be embedded in Internet of Things devices. Basically, the company built a chip that does sonar.

With the acquisition, TDK plants its stake in the booming business of sensors that can sense in three dimensions, detecting hand gestures and following people around a room. For TDK, Chirp's sensors complement its portfolio of sensors and actuators as well as the navigation systems that it acquired in its InvenSense deal.

Last year, TDK bought InvenSense, one of the largest makers of gyroscopes used in smartphones to measure motion and orientation, for $1.3 billion. InvenSense, which also manufactures fingerprint sensors and microphones, could also muscle into Internet of Things applications, like connected factory equipment, medical devices and cars – big priorities for TDK.

“Our vision is to be the leading solutions provider of sensors for motion, sound, environmental elements (pressure, temperature and humidity), and ultrasonic sensors,” said Noboru Saito, senior vice president of TDK’s sensor systems business unit, in a statement. Chirp’s ultrasonic sensors “will fill out our lineup of sensor solutions,” he said.

TDK, which generated almost $11 billion in revenue last year, could use its sales channels to expand the reach of Chirp’s technology. That could give ultrasonic sensors a larger cut of the market for 3D sensors, which is expected to grow four fold to more than $9 billion by 2022, according to Yole Developpement.

Chirp’s sensors take advantage of microelectromechanical systems – more commonly called MEMS – and a piezoelectric material that generates a tiny electrical current from the sounds waves reflected off objects. The result is an ultrasonic sensor smaller and more efficient than incumbents, which are about the size and shape of a sewing thimble.

Its time-of-flight sensors pair an ultrasonic transducer with a mixed-signal chipset, which nulls voices and other ambient noise that can interfere with the sensor’s accuracy. The devices consume as little as 15 microwatts with the sampling rate dialed down and can detect objects several centimeters to several meters away.

These capabilities open the door to ultrasonic sensors being used in laptops that turns on when you walk in your office or motion controllers for virtual reality. In addition to consumer electronics, Chirp is also targeting more traditional uses, like collision avoidance systems in cars and warehouse robots that fetch inventory off shelves.

Chirp’s founders include chief executive Michelle Kiang, formerly of Aptina Imaging, and chief technology officer David Horsley, a professor at the University of California Davis and director of the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center in California. The company spun out of the laboratory in 2013.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed. Late last year, David Horsley declined to answer Electronic Design’s questions about the company’s funding. He said that the company would announce a Series A round and double its headcount to 30 employees by the end of 2018. The acquisition is expected to close this month.

Additional investment would have given it more financial firepower to compete in the market for 3D sensors. Sony, for instance, is ramping up development of image sensors that precisely measure distance by shooting pulses of infrared light and calculating how long it takes for the light to reflect off different objects.

And last year, Apple invested $390 million in Finisar to boost production of infrared lasers used in its TrueDepth camera. The system projects infrared light onto a person’s face to digitally map its minute contours and features. That allows a person to unlock the iPhone X or authorize a mobile payment just by looking at it.

There are ways that TDK could differentiate its products. The company could use algorithms to fuse information from different sensors – like inertial and ultrasonic sensors – giving factory robots, for instance, a more detailed view of their surroundings. TDK could also use advanced packaging to improve the robustness of Chirp’s technology.

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