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Canon wants its image sensors in others' cars, robots

TOKYO -- Canon will supply image sensors to other manufacturers for the first time, anticipating demand for the technology in building self-driving cars, robots and other smart machines.

The Japanese maker of digital cameras and office equipment plans to begin selling its CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) sensors within two years and has already assembled a team to launch the business.

The competition that Canon brings to the market could help raise the level of a technology whose use has expanded from taking photos to enabling machines to see the world around them.

Canon manufactures its image senors at two plants in Kanagawa Prefecture near Tokyo and one in southern Japan's Oita Prefecture. All of the output has gone into the company's digital cameras and some video cameras.

With the camera market shrinking, Canon aims to offset a decline in sensor output. Because Sony and others already hold substantial shares of the market for general-purpose CMOS sensors, Canon intends to supply specialized devices for automotive and industrial applications. Besides cars and robots, it envisions its sensors helping guide drones, as well as sharpening the vision of traffic-monitoring systems. 

For starters, Canon has developed a new sensor able to capture fast-moving objects with little image distortion. With an increased memory for brightness, the new sensor outperforms rival devices in terms of capturing contrast, according to the company.

Canon says it could help autonomous cars see the road and identify pedestrians during high-speed night driving. In factory robots, it could improve the mechanical workers' ability to perform quality checks or position parts. Other image sensor manufacturers are also pursuing automotive and industrial applications.

Canon's in-house supply of CMOS sensors ranks fifth in the world in terms of value, with a roughly 5% market share, according to Tokyo-based Techno Systems Research. Sony leads the market, with a 40%-plus share, followed by Samsung Electronics at nearly 20%. Both of these companies sell image sensors as well as manufacture them for their own electronics.

U.S.-based IC Insights forecasts the global market for CMOS sensors to grow to $15.2 billion in 2020, an increase of 50% from last year.


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