PSA: Self-Driving Cars Can Ruin Your Camera

By Holly Brockwell on at

Walking round the massive tech cornucopia that is CES taking pictures of all kinds of weird and wonderful gadgets is one of the great pleasures of being a geek. But for robotics engineer Jit Ray Chowdhury, it was an easy way to break his £1,000 camera.

Chowdhury snapped some photos of an autonomous vehicle being shown by San Francisco tech company AEye, and subsequently found ugly pink stripes running through all his pictures. Putting the lens cap on and taking photos still showed spots, which proved they were burnt into the camera sensor.

After some investigation about what could have caused that kind of damage, he realised it was the laser in the car's lidar navigation system. Powerful lasers can screw up camera sensors, especially if you point the camera directly at the laser. However, Chowdhury had taken many photos of lidar cars before this one, and never had a problem.

AEye somewhat defensively commented to Ars Technica that "Cameras are up to 1000x more sensitive to lasers than eyeballs. Occasionally, this can cause thermal damage to a camera's focal plane array."

So clearly it's the camera's fault for being too sensitive. Damn snowflake sensors.

The lasers used by lidar are not harmful to human eyes (as you'd hope, really!), and most won't damage cameras either, but it seems some can. This raises the issue of whether some self-driving cars will damage others, because of course cameras are a key component of autonomous wayfinding. It also makes us wonder whether the lasers might be harmful to other creatures' eyes -- we don't want any bats going blind as a proverbial.

The Sony camera in this case was just a month old and cost £930. AEye has offered to buy him a new one, but as Chowdhury points out, their powerful lidar units have a range of about a kilometre, so they probably shouldn't be switching them on at tradeshows anyway.

Main image: Jit Ray Chowdhury via Twitter