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Lilium in talks with Brazilian airline for $1B order

By Aria Alamalhodaei

German electric aircraft startup Lilium is negotiating the terms for a 220-aircraft, $1 billion order with one of Brazil’s largest domestic airlines, the companies said Monday. Should the deal with Azul move forward, it would mark the largest order in Lilium’s history and its first foray into South American markets.

“A term sheet has been signed and we will move towards a final agreement in the coming months,” a Lilium spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The 220 aircraft would fly as part of a new, co-branded airline network that would operate in Brazil. Should the two companies come to an agreement, Azul would operate and maintain the fleet of the flagship 7-seater aircraft, and Lilium would provide custom spare parts, including replacement batteries, and an aircraft health monitoring platform.

Deliveries would commence in 2025, a year after Lilium has said it plans to begin commercial operations in Europe and the United States. These timelines are dependent upon Lilium receiving key certification approvals from each country’s requisite aerospace regulator. Azul said in a statement it would “support Lilium with the necessary regulatory approval processes in Brazil” as part of the agreement.

Even if a deal is reached, it would likely be subject to Lilium hitting certain performance standards and benchmarks, similar to the conditions of Archer Aviation’s $1 billion order with United Airlines. Still, orders of this value are seen as a positive signal to markets and investors that an electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft is more than smoke and mirrors.

Also like Archer, Lilium is planning on taking the SPAC route to going public. The company in March announced its intention to merge with Qell Acquisition Corp. and list on Nasdaq under ticker symbol “LILM.” SPACs have become a popular vehicle for public listing across the transportation sector, but they’ve become especially popular with capital-intensive eVTOL startups.

The merger may be necessary for the company’s continued operations. According to the German news website Welt, Lilium added a risk warning to its 2019 balance sheet noting that it will run out of money in December 2022 should the SPAC merger not be completed.

US government watchdog rejects Blue Origin’s protest over lunar lander contract

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Blue Origin’s protest to a U.S. governmental watchdog over NASA’s decision to award SpaceX a multi-billion dollar contract to develop a lunar lander was rejected.

The Government Accountability Office said Friday that it was denying both Blue Origin’s protest and a separate challenge filed by Dynetics, a defense contractor that also submitted a proposal for the contract. GAO concluded that NASA did not violate any laws or regulations when granting the sole award to SpaceX.

“As a result, GAO denied the protest arguments that NASA acted improperly in making a single award to SpaceX,” the agency said in a statement.

The formal protest was over NASA’s decision to award the contract for the Human Landing System Program, which aims to return humans to the moon for the first time since Apollo, solely to SpaceX — and not to two companies, as was originally intended. SpaceX’s proposal for the Human Landing System Program came in at $2.9 billion, around half of Blue Origin’s $5.99 billion proposal. Earlier this week, Bezos penned an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson offering to knock $2 billion off that price to solve the “near-term budgetary issues” that caused NASA to select just one company for the contract.

NASA’s decision to give just one company the award did veer from historical standard, but GAO maintained that “the [contract] announcement reserved the right to make multiple awards, a single award, or no award at all.”

Blue Origin maintains that it was not given time to revise its bid after NASA concluded it did not have sufficient funding for two awards. “Blue Origin was plainly prejudiced by the Agency’s failure to communicate this change in requirements,” the company said in the protest. “Blue Origin could have and would have taken several actions to revise its proposed approach, reduce its price to more closely align with funding available to the Agency, and/or propose schedule alternatives.”

Blue Origin and Dynetics submitted their separate protests in April.

Update: In response to the decision, a Blue Origin spokesperson told TechCrunch:

“We stand firm in our belief that there were fundamental issues with NASA’s decision, but the GAO wasn’t able to address them due to their limited jurisdiction. We’ll continue to advocate for two immediate providers as we believe it is the right solution.”

The spokesperson noted that the company was encouraged by lawmakers adding a provision to a bill in Senate that would require NASA to select two providers for the HLS program.

Elon Musk, meanwhile, had this to say about the decision…

GAO 💪

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2021

TechCrunch has reached out to Dynetics for comment. We will update the story if they respond.

Craft Aerospace’s novel take on VTOL aircraft could upend local air travel

By Devin Coldewey

Air taxis may still be pie in the sky, but there’s more than one way to move the air travel industry forward. Craft Aerospace aims to do so with a totally new vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that it believes could make city-to-city hops simpler, faster, cheaper and greener.

The aircraft — which, to be clear, is still in small-scale prototype form — uses a new VTOL technique that redirects the flow of air from its engines using flaps rather than turning them (like the well-known, infamously unstable Osprey), making for a much more robust and controllable experience.

Co-founder James Dorris believes that this fast, stable VTOL craft is the key that unlocks a new kind of local air travel, eschewing major airports for minor ones or even heliports. Anyone that’s ever had to take a flight that lasts under an hour knows that three times longer is spent in security lines, gate walks and, of course, getting to and from these necessarily distant major airports.

“We’re not talking about flying wealthy people to the mall — there are major inefficiencies in major corridors,” Dorris told TechCrunch. “The key to shortening that delay is picking people up in cities and dropping them off in cities. So for these short hops, we need to combine the advantages of fixed-wing aircraft and VTOL.”

The technique they arrived at is what’s called a “blown wing” or “deflected slipstream.” It looks a bit like something you’d see on the cover of a vintage science fiction rag, but the unusual geometry and numerous rotors serve a purpose.

The basic principle of a blown wing has been explored before now but never done on a production aircraft. You simply place a set of (obviously extremely robust) flaps directly behind the thrust, where they can be tilted down and into the exhaust stream, directing the airflow downward. This causes the craft to rise upward and forward, and as it gets enough altitude it can retract the flaps, letting the engines operate normally and driving the craft forward to produce ordinary lift.

Image Credits: Craf Aerospace. During takeoff, thrust is redirected downward by extending flaps.

The many rotors are there for redundancy and so that the thrust can be minutely adjusted on each of the four “half-wings.” The shape, called a box wing, is also something that has been tried in a limited fashion (there are drones with it, for example) but ultimately never proved a valid alternative to a traditional swept wing. But Dorris and Craft believe it has powerful advantages, in this case, allowing for a much more stable, adjustable takeoff and landing than the two-engine Osprey. (Or, indeed, many proposed or prototype tilt-rotor aircraft out there.)

Image Credits: Craf Aerospace. During flight, the flaps retract and thrust pushes the plane forward as normal.

“Our tech is a combination of both existing and novel tech,” he said. “The box wing has been built and flown; the high flap aircraft has been built and flown. They’ve never been synthesized like this in a VTOL aircraft.”

To reiterate: The company has demonstrated a limited scale model that shows the principle is sound — they’re not claiming there’s a full-scale craft ready to go. That’s years down the line, but willing partners will help them move forward.

The fifth-generation prototype (perhaps the size of a coffee table) hovers using the blown wing principle, and the sixth, due to fly in a few months, will introduce the transitioning flaps. (I was shown a video of the prototype doing tethered indoor hovering, but the company is not releasing this test footage publicly.)

The design of the final craft is still in flux — it’s not known exactly how many rotors it will have, for instance — but the basic size, shape and capabilities are already penned in.

It’ll carry nine passengers and a pilot, and fly around 35,000 feet or so at approximately 300 knots, or 345 mph. That’s slower than a normal passenger jet, but whatever time you lose in the air ought to be more than regained by skipping the airport. The range of the cleaner hybrid gas-electric engines should be around 1,000 miles, which gives a good amount of flexibility and safety margins. It also covers 45 of the top 50 busiest routes in the world, things like Los Angeles to San Francisco, Seoul to Jeju Island, and Tokyo to Osaka.

Image Credits: Craft Aerospace. It probably wouldn’t be flying at this altitude.

Notably, however, Dorris wants to make it clear that the idea is not “LAX to SFO” but “Hollywood to North Beach.” VTOL aircraft aren’t just for show: Regulations permitting, they can touch down in a much smaller location, though exactly what kind of landing pad and micro-airport is envisioned is, like the aircraft itself, still being worked out.

The team, which just worked its way through Y Combinator’s summer 2021 cohort, is experienced in building sophisticated transport: Dorris was a primary on Virgin Hyperloop’s propulsion system, and his co-founder Axel Radermacher helped build Karma Automotive’s drivetrain. It may not have escaped you that neither of those companies makes aircraft, but Dorris thinks of that as a feature, not a bug.

“You’ve seen what’s come out of traditional aerospace over the last 10, 20 years,” he said, letting the obvious implication speak for itself that the likes of Boeing and Airbus aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel. And companies that partnered with automotive giants hit walls because there’s a mismatch between the scales — a few hundred aircraft is very different from half a million Chevy sedans.

So Craft is relying on partners who have looked to shake things up in aerospace. Among its advisers are Bryan Berthy (once director of engineering at Lockheed Martin), Nikhil Goel (one of Uber Elevate’s co-founders), and Brogan BamBrogan (early SpaceX employee and Hyperloop faithful).

The company also just announced a letter of intent from JSX, a small airline serving low-friction flights on local routes, to purchase 200 aircraft and the option for 400 more if wanted. Dorris believes that with their position and growth curve they could make a perfect early partner when the aircraft is ready, probably around 2025 with flights beginning in 2026.

It’s a risky, weird play with a huge potential payoff, and Craft thinks that their approach, as unusual as it seems today, is just plainly a better way to fly a few hundred miles. Positive noises from the industry, and from investors, seem to back that feeling up. The company has received early-stage investment (of an unspecified total) from Giant Ventures, Countdown Capital, Soma Capital and its adviser Nikhil Goel.

“We’ve demonstrated it, and we’re getting an enormous amount of traction from aerospace people who have seen hundreds of concepts,” said Dorris. “We’re a team of only seven, about to be nine, people. … Frankly, we’re extremely pleased with the level of interest we’re getting.”

Swarm debuts $499 Evaluation Kit for consumers and tinkerers

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Satellite connectivity company Swarm has come out with a new product that will give anyone the ability to create a messaging or Internet of Things (IoT) device, whether that be a hiker looking to stay connected off-the-grid or a hobbyist wanting to track the weather.

The Swarm Evaluation Kit is an all-in-one product that includes a Swarm Tile, the company’s flagship modem device, a VHF antenna, a small solar panel, a tripod, a Feather S2 development board and an OLED from Adafruit. The entire kit comes in at less than six pounds and costs $499. The package may sound intimidatingly technical, but Swarm CEO Sara Spangelo explained to TechCrunch that it was designed to be user-friendly, from the most novice consumer all the way through to more advanced users.

It “was super intentional to call it an Evaluation kit because it’s not a finished product,” Spangelo explained. “It serves two different kinds of groups. The first group is people that want to be able to do messaging anywhere that they are on the planet for a really low cost […] The second group of people will be the tinkerers and the hobbyists and educational folks.”

Swarm CEO and co-founder Sara Spangelo Image Credits: Swarm

This is the second consumer product that Swarm has on offer, after it went commercially live with its flagship Swarm Tile earlier this year. The Swarm Tile is a key component of the company’s ecosystem, which is comprised of a few different components: the Tile, a kind of modem that can be embedded in different things and what the customer interfaces with; the satellite network; and a ground station network, which is how the company downlinks data. The Tile is designed for maximum compatibility, so Swarm serves customers across sectors including shipping, logistics, and agriculture.

“One of the cool things about Swarm is that we’re infrastructure,” she said. “We’re like cellphone towers, so anyone can use us across any vertical.” Some of the use cases she highlighted included customers using Tile in soil moisture sensors, or in asset tracking in the trucking industry.

A major part of Swarm’s business model is its low cost, with a Swarm Tile costing $119 and the connectivity service available for only $5 per month per connected device. Spangelo credits not only the engineering innovations in the tiny devices and satellites, but the gains in launch economics, especially for small satellite developers like Swarm. The company also sells direct, which further reduces overhead.

Swarm was founded by Spangelo, a pilot and aerospace engineering PhD who spent time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and at Google on its drone delivery project, Wing. She told TechCrunch that Swarm started as a hobby project between her and co-founder Ben Longmier, who had previously founded a company called Aether Industries that made high-altitude balloon platforms.

“Then [we] realized that we could do communications at speeds that were similar to what the legacy players are doing today,” Sara Spangelo said. “There was a lot of buzz around connectivity,” she added, noting that initiatives like Project Loon were garnering a lot of funding. But instead of trying to match the size and scale of some of these multi-year projects, they decided to go small.

In the four and a half years since the company’s founding, Swarm has put up a network of 120 sandwich-sized satellites into low Earth orbit and grown its workforce to 32 people. They’ve also been busy onboarding customers that use the Tile. One hope is that the Kit will be an additional way to draw customers to Swarm’s service.

Spangelo said the kit is for “everybody in between, that likes to just play with things. And it’s not just playing – the playing leads to innovations and ideas, and then it gets deployed out into the world.”

Accion Systems raises $42 million in Series C to accelerate development of 4th-gen propulsion system

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Space propulsion developer Accion Systems has closed its most significant funding round yet. The company raised $42 million in a Series C led by Tracker Capital, bringing its valuation to $83.5 million.

Along with the investment, Tracker Capital also acquired a majority stake in the company. This latest injection of capital will facilitate the development and manufacturing of the company’s fourth generation propulsion system, dubbed the tiled ionic liquid electrospray (TILE) system.

The TILE system uses electrical energy to push charge particles (ions) out its back to generate propulsion. While ion engines have been around for decades, Accion uses a liquid propellant, an ionic liquid salt, instead of gas. The liquid is inert and non-pressurized, meaning there’s no risk of explosion. It also results in a product that doesn’t need bulky components like ionization chambers, and an overall smaller and lighter weight system relative to the spacecraft – key considerations in space, where every gram of payload has a high price tag.

“It lets us build really, really small systems,” Accion co-founder Natalya Bailey explained to TechCrunch. “Instead of trying to take an existing ion engine the size of a Prius and shrink it down, we can start with very small systems because of this propellant.” And she does mean small – each thruster tile is about the size of a postage stamp.

The TILE system is also scalable and modular, meaning it could feasibly be used on anything from cubesats to propelling an interplanetary spacecraft, Accion CEO Peter Kant added in a recent interview with TechCrunch. “It’s one of the few occasions where the total addressable market and the actual addressable market that we can serve are pretty closely aligned and almost overlap,” he said.

The newest generation of the TILE system is the same size as its predecessors, but Accion is increasing the number of emitters on a given chip – emitters being the technology that actually shoots out the ions, generating the momentum – by almost tenfold. “We get more ions per area and that gives us a whole lot more thrust with the same amount of space,” Kant said.

Accion is looking to ship the first fourth-gen thruster systems in the middle to late summer of 2022.

The TILE system was developed by Accion co-founders Natalya Bailey and Louis Perna while the two were at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The tech generated a ton of interest from big aerospace companies, but they decided to found Accion in 2014 rather than sell. The company manufactures and assembles its product at its facility in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

The TILE system was onboard commercial spacecraft, one with Astra Digital and one with NanoAvionics, that went up on SpaceX’s Transporter-2 launch at the end of June. Accion started by focusing on serving smaller spacecraft first, like cubesats, but Bailey said that was just the beginning.

“We’re going after that segment initially, and then intending to reinvest our learnings in building larger and larger systems that eventually can do big geostationary satellites and interplanetary missions and so on. The systems that went up on the most recent launcher [is] probably good for a satellite up to about 50 kilograms [. . .] For us, it’s on the smaller end of where we intend to go.”

Bezos and crew host a giddy press conference after Blue Origin’s inaugural crewed launch

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Jeff Bezos was so triumphant he was practically glowing at a press conference following the Blue Origin’s first crewed mission to space, 21 years after he founded the company in 2000. The billionaire talked about the future of the company and his role in it, and then casually gave away a couple hundred million dollars.

Bezos was one of four that rode in the RSS First Step capsule; the others were his financier brother, Mark; aviation legend and Mercury 13 veteran Wally Funk; and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, the son of the second-highest bidder on the Blue Origin seat auction. (The $28 million dollar winner postponed his seat due to scheduling conflicts.)

The company now joins a very tiny circle of companies that have sent private citizens to space, in the biggest boost yet for the nascent space tourism industry. Tuesday also marks the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the next step in space travel paying homage to the very first.

The press conference opened with the grinning foursome being pinned with astronaut ‘wings,’ a badge traditionally granted to those that have gone to space. “I’m so happy,” said Bezos at the press conference, donning the same cream cowboy hat he wore moments after emerging from the capsule a little over two hours earlier.

Bezos also thanked the city of Van Horn, acknowledging Blue Origin has made “a dent in it,” and followed by thanking every Amazon employee, plus its millions of customers: “Seriously, you paid for this.”

They also showed a brief video of the four crew members cavorting in four minutes of microgravity, including footage of the crew members catching floating Skittles in their mouths.

This is the second suborbital mission crewed entirely by private citizens this month alone, a first in history. The first was accomplished by Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, a rocket-powered spaceplane, on July 11; its founder, billionaire Richard Branson, was aboard, which helped foment a truly petty spat between the two ultra-wealthy founders. That aside, the two flights have helped make space tourism more of a reality than ever before.

The flight will also likely be a boost for Blue Origin’s commercial heavy-lift rocket launch arm, which for the moment is largely occupied by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The same technologies that are used to perfect New Shepard’s reusability could come in handy for the development of New Glenn, the company’s massive orbital launch. Bezos said in February that the company was pushing the inaugural launch of New Glenn from late 2021 to the latter quarter of 2022.

Jeff Bezos speaks into a mic at the blue origin press conference.

Image Credits: Blue Origin / YouTube

“The fact of the matter is, the architecture and the technology we’ve chosen is complete over-kill” for space tourism, Bezos said. Instead, Blue Origin chose it “because it scales […]  the whole point of this is to get practice” for larger and heavier missions.

On why Blue Origin chose liquid fuel, he reiterated that it’s practice for future launches. “Every time we fly this tourism mission, we practice flying the second stage of New Glenn.”

In December 2020, NASA added Blue Origin to its roster of space companies eligible to compete for contracts under its Launch Services II program. While it doesn’t guarantee that New Glenn or any other Blue Origin rocket would be awarded a launch contract, it’s the first step to getting there.

Jeff Bezos confirmed that Blue Origin will fly two additional crewed launches this year alone, but it has yet to announce the price per seat. “We want the cadence to be very high […] We’re approaching $100 million in private sales already.” When asked how to get the cost per seat down, Bezos said the space tourism industry would follow the trajectory of commercial space travel, now widely used by millions of travelers each year.

At the end of the conference, Bezos announced he was starting a $100 million Courage and Civility Award, with CNN contributor Van Jones and Michelin star chef José Andrés as the first two recipients. The winner will give that money away to the charities of their choice. The award is for people who apparently demonstrate civility and resist ad hominem attacks. Reading between the lines (frankly, you don’t even really have to do that) it seems like a commentary on contemporary political discourse, especially the emphasis on civility in disagreement.

Looking to the future, the Amazon founder said he would split his time between Blue Origin and the Bezos Earth Fund, a $10 billion investment fund focused on climate change.

“This is not about escaping Earth. The whole point is, this is the only good planet in the solar system,” Bezos said. “We have to take care of it.”

Rewatch the press conference here:

Blue Origin’s New Shepard carries Jeff Bezos and three crew members to space and back

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Blue Origin successfully completed its first crewed launch Tuesday, sending four human passengers to space – including the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos. The result of billions of dollars of investment, dozens of test launches and some petty squabbling amongst ultra-rich founders, the triumph of the New Shepard, along with that of Virgin Galactic earlier this month, undoubtably heralds the dawn of a new age of space tourism.

It was quite the media spectacle. The mission took place at Launch Site One, Blue Origin’s sprawling and secretive facility that sits around thirty miles north of the small town of Van Horn, Texas. Every hotel in Van Horn and nearby towns were sold out of rooms in the days leading to launch as spectators traveled in for the event; meanwhile, a huge gaggle of local, national and online outlets (including yours truly) swarmed the Press Site as early as 2:30 AM CST. Despite some premature calls for rain in the early hours of the morning, the skies stayed clear and things mostly kept to schedule.

The four-person crew – including Bezos, his brother, Mark, 18-year old student Oliver Daemon, and aviation pioneer and Mercury 13 veteran Wally Funk – emerged from the training center and caught a Rivian R1S electric SUV to the launch pad around 45 minutes prior to launch. (Bezos drove a Rivian R1T pickup to the landing site of the rocket after its last test, a nod to Amazon’s sizeable investment in the EV startup). The crew climbed the launch tower and took a brief respite in an adjacent shelter, before climbing into the capsule, dubbed RSS First Step.

There was a brief hold at T-15 minutes, leading to the launch running slightly behind schedule. New Shepard took at 8:11 CST. They passed the Kármán line (more on that later) at 8:15 AM; capsule separation followed, and the booster returned to the launch site autonomously and with a loud boom at 8:19 AM. The crewed capsule floated slowly to Earth via parachute, touching land at 8:22 AM for an eleven-minutes total flight time.

The flight was the result of fifteen tests of the reusable suborbital New Shepard rocket, including a rehearsal launch in April that included a dry run of flight preparations and a mock crew embarked (then disembarked before take-off) into the capsule. Blue Origin now joins rival Virgin Galactic in a very, very small group of commercial space companies to send private citizens to orbit.

Daemon was added to the crew after the anonymous auction winner, who bid $28 million for the seat, had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict. CNBC reported that Daemon’s father, CEO of the Dutch private equity firm Somerset Capital Partners, placed the second-highest bid.

The route to space

Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, six years after he started ecommerce behemoth Amazon. The company has zeroed in on space tourism, and it sees this flight as the requisite proof of concept it needs to start flying customers. To that end, the New Shepard capsule has large, tourism-friendly windows – the largest in spaceflight history, according to the company. “These windows make up a third of the capsule, immersing you in the vastness of space and life-changing views of our blue planet,” it says on the Blue Origin website.

The launch is also the culmination of weeks of squabbling between Bezos and his billionaire spacefaring rival, Richard Branson, who was aboard his own flight to space 10 days earlier. But despite ostensibly beating Bezos to the punch, much of the fighting was over what actually counts as space – and whether VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered spaceplane, actually went there.

Image Credits: Blue Origin

The kerfuffle is over what’s known as the Kármán line, an internationally recognized imaginary boundary of space that’s around 60 miles above Earth. VSS Unity flew to around 51.4 miles – above the boundary recognized by NASA. “From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name,” Blue Origin tweeted two days before the Virgin launch. The tweet also included a little infographic throwing further shade at on Virgin flights.

From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line. pic.twitter.com/QRoufBIrUJ

— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) July 9, 2021

This is just the beginning for Blue Origin. Director of astronaut sales Ariane Cornell said at a pre-mission briefing on July 18 that she’s been “chatting with many of [Blue Origin’s] future customers who have signed for the subsequent flights.” She added that the company intends on launching two more flights this year, with CEO Bob Smith estimating that a second crewed New Shepard flight could take place in September or October.

What does this mean for the rest of us (as in, those that don’t have a couple extra million floating around in our bank accounts)? While the so-called billionaire space race is a petty squabble, both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s respective launches are the likely heralds of a new age of space travel for consumers and scientists alike. It will be limited to the wealthy at first, but as TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm argues, costs will go down and more humans will go to space – including scientists and researchers, maybe even me or you.

In case you missed it, you can catch the entire launch on Blue Origin’s archived livestream here:

Virgin Galactic president Mike Moses on what’s next for the company’s growing fleet

By Devin Coldewey

This last weekend featured the much-ballyhooed launch of Virgin Galactic’s first (nonpaying) passengers, with founder and CEO Richard Branson along for the ride. After the festivities, I had the chance to talk with the company’s president, Mike Moses, who seems to be familiar with every detail of the operation and the company’s plans for going from test to commercial flights.

Unfortunately my recorder went on the fritz, but Moses was kind enough to hop on the phone later in the week to talk (again) about the next generation of spaceplanes, where the company needs to invest, and more. You can read through our conversation below. (Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)


TC: To begin with, can you tell me what’s left to test, and when do you expect to finish the test flight phase?

Moses: The test flight series that we’re kind of in right now, and the flight with Richard was the first of those, represents a shift from what was more classic and traditional, envelope testing, where we’re looking at aerodynamics and trajectories and handling qualities, to more of an operational check-out, where we are validating cabin experience experiences, training procedures, hardware for the folks in the back and what they’re going to go through.

So we’ve laid out a series of a few flights there, three to be specific, that both demonstrate key product milestones and features, as well as allow us time to iterate and develop and optimize some of that back-of-cabin experience. But as always, that’s a notional schedule, right? The schedule and the numbers are going to depend on the results. So if things go well, we think that’s a three-flight series if we find things that we need to adjust, we’ll add more as needed based on what we’re learning.

Based on the results that we got after Richard and crew came back from the last flight, you know, we know we have some stuff to work on but but everything was pretty much thumbs up.

Now, we know we’re going to do those flights over the course of this summer and late summer, and then we’ll be ready to move into, as we announced during our previous earnings call, a ‘modification phase’ where we’re going to do some upgrades on our mothership and our spaceship to prepare them for commercial service. The main focus there is to look at things that allow us to increase the flight-rate frequency. Right now in test, we fly at a fairly slow pace [i.e. infrequently, not at low speed], because we’re inspecting everything prudently. We’re going to want to start to move away from that, and as we learn, and so we already know, there’s some modifications we want to make to enable that to start to happen. We haven’t set a specific timescale for when that officially ends.

TC: You mentioned when we talked at the Spaceport, the crew hadn’t yet really been debriefed about the experience. I’m hoping maybe you have a little more information now about recommendations from Sir Richard, from Siriha, from everybody that was actually up there. Have you gotten any substantive feedback that you can share?

Moses: So we are definitely in the middle of all that feedback and debriefing. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of data to go through. And in some cases, that data is as simple as the 16 video cameras that we had onboard, and getting them all synced up to see that what’s happening where, and couple that with live notes, and debriefs, and the audio tracks that went with it. We are definitely gathering up the inputs, but there’s nothing on that list that I think I’m ready to disclose at this time. We’ll keep folks posted as we go.

The general feedback, post-landing both that day and the next day, was ‘things were awesome,’ right? Now that’s not a scientific answer, and I want the scientific answer, so we’re gonna make them go through the work to debrief.

Image Credits: Virgin Galactic

TC: You touched on this with the ‘modification phase’… Unity is, I don’t know how exactly you’d describe it, a production prototype. Could you tell me whether there’s any special upkeep for it as the sort of first off the line?

Moses: There’s nothing special as part of its design or build that requires special upkeep. But as a test vehicle and as our first article, we give it a lot of extra attention. We dive in pretty deep on inspections, both regularly and as we see issues, we would probably, test those and explore just to make sure we truly understand that there’s no unknowns out there, things like how the system performs how it does in cold temperatures, under load and under stress. We keep an eye on it.

There’s a series of measurements that we make to say, you know, where did the vehicle perform based on its design envelope. And if we’re close to the edges of any of that envelope, we go do extra inspections to validate that our modeling and our predictions are right. So in that regard, it’s pretty similar to how you would have a first set of articles coming out for a new aircraft development, you would build a maintenance and inspection program. That is, an extremely conservative one. And then as you use it, you start to pull out that conservatism based on your positive feedback.

But in general, yes, Unity does get a lot of extra attention. And the next vehicles will have some of that designed in part of that. We’ve already learned a bunch of, like, ‘hey, on the next vehicle, make this different so I don’t have to look at it every time, I can look at it every five times.’

TC: I think that when we when we talked before, you mentioned that you expect multiple-hundred flights, at least theoretically, out of Unity.

Moses: Yeah, multiple-hundred flights of the vehicle. We set a design envelope where we designed for a certain lifetime, and we we tested to that, and then we can always go do life extension. Some of that is just a limitation of… you know, we’re going to cycle the stuff 10,000 times rather than 40,000 times, and we’ll come back later and get the other cycles when we get closer to the 10,000 life. We’ll go back and add more to it. There’s not a lot of components that have, you know, like a ‘fall off the cliff’ type of lifetime.

TC: You mentioned some of the modifications you are going to build into the successor or production craft. Can you tell me any of those, how it will differ in minor or major ways, when you expect weight on wheels and that kind of thing?

Moses: So we’ve already done weight on wheels. And we had our rollout, which is effectively that weight on wheels, where we transition from, basically major factory assembly into ground tests. So all of the systems are installed, and now they’re gonna start to run integrated ground testing, where you can basically go run a computer system through its checkouts, you can run the flight control system through checkouts… you’re still on the ground, right, you’re not yet ready to fly. But we are in that integrated testing.

As far as changes… when we designed the structure, if you think about it as the skeleton, under the skin, with Imagine and Inspire, we optimized and moved those skeletons, the ribs in the spars, to the locations where the load was highest. Unity was built off of the original design intent of Scaled Composites, and flight tests, they’ve shown us that sometimes that load is not exactly where it is expected. There’s a lot of extra weight in Unity to account for that load; Imagine and Inspire, we’re able to optimize and put the structure right where it needed to be.

There’s a joint, for example, on Unity that I have to go look at every time, because I had to add extra to it. Whereas on Imagine, it was designed to where it should be in the first place. I’ll still look at it, but it’s much easier access and a much shorter inspection.

VSS Imagine on a runway.

Image Credits: Virgin Galactic

So things like that, that let me optimize my inspection schedule. And other just simplistic things — there are now access panels where we know we need them, whereas we had to kind of add them after the fact in Unity. Your quick release fasteners and things like that, that make inspections shorter, we were able to add into the design, we made a pretty significant number of changes like that, all fairly minor, but they have a large effect on the maintainability of the vehicle.

And the next phase, right, we talked about this, the Delta class of spaceships, we’re going to make changes for manufacturability. Unity and Inspire and Imagine are still fairly one-off hand-built aircraft — spacecraft, sorry. And if we want to go build a dozen or more to get to these 400-flight-a-year rates, we need to make sure they’re manufacturable at a smaller price tag in a smaller time scale. So that next design will incorporate a bunch of that stuff.

TC: That’s actually one of the things I wanted to talk about is how you get to the reliability and cadence that you want to have for commercial operation? Obviously, more aircraft is one part of that, but you know, maybe expanding ground ops or crew, better maintenance and stuff like that.

Moses: Yeah, you bet. And I think that’s it, right: It’s a fleet, so we have multiple vehicles for dispatch. That gives you capacity to be able to handle anything that comes up unexpected, like weather. And then it’s the workforce — with more workforce, a 24/7 clock, then you can have multiple expertises, or a crew focused on just one vehicle. And the second crew, they’re focused on the second one.

I think our mantra here is going to be to take it in baby steps — we’re not going to try to go to those high flight rates initially, we want to get a little faster, then a little faster, then a little faster. That’s kind of Unity’s purpose in life in 2022, to allow us to go explore those operational cadences and see where we can apply multiplying factors for when we get additional spaceships.

You know, the business model is a great one, right? But in these next couple of years, it’s fairly insensitive to whether I’m doing eight flights or 10 flights or 12 flights with Unity. I mean, in terms of revenue, it doesn’t move the needle very much. But in terms of operational learning, that’s a significant step for us, so we want to be prudent with how we proceed down that path.

MOJAVE, UNITED STATES – OCTOBER 10: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY, NO SUBJECT SPECIFIC TV BROADCAST DOCUMENTARIES OR BOOK USE) Virgin Galactic vehicle SpaceShipTwo completes its successful first glide flight at Mojave on October 10, 2010 over Mojave in California. (Photo by Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic/Getty Images)

TC: Can you can you tell me again why, or whether, you plan on keeping the flight plans more or less the same? Maybe there’s possibility, later down the line with the revised version with six people in it, that you might have to have a slightly different profile?

Moses: That’s kind of coupled with what we talked about at the beginning of this Q&A, the move from a test phase into this operational readiness phase. Coupled with that is a profile that is now set — the trajectory that the pilots fly, the techniques they use, we’ll still optimize, but we’re not making major revisions. Those are all pretty much physics-based results. The airspeed we’re at, the angles that we’re at, and the subsequent altitude we get to, the weight we carry, are all kind of locked-in variables, and there’s not much you can do to change that equation.

There’ll be some definite trajectory changes that come along with Imagine because it will have more capacity on board, which means it’ll have a slightly different performance, and we just need to go verify that envelope. But for the most part, you know, the physics of the equation kind of set what you can do, roughly speaking, so that’s why we’re limited to only carrying four passengers here initially. We can change that, and we do plan on looking at weight reductions in the ship, but again, with an eye towards the fleet that we’re building, and make sure we get a fleet that is serviceable for the long haul.

TC: That’s all I’ve got here. Thanks again for taking the time to chat.

You can watch a recap of the recent Virgin Galactic launch here.

Eat the rich, but let them build rockets in the meantime

By Alex Wilhelm

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic went to space (or the vicinity of space) in a PR-suffused event over the weekend. It was all rather twee, packed with maudlin riffs about childhood dreams and riddled with hero worship. And the stream kept stuttering while some of the planned vehicle-to-Earth communications failed.


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But the launch accomplished what it set out to do: A few folks made it to into zero gravity after launching their rocket-powered space plane from a larger aircraft, flipping it around at the top of its arc so that its passengers could get a good view of our home while floating. Then it came back to the surface and, we’re sure, much champagne was consumed.

In the aftermath of the event, lots of folks are pissed. Complaints have rolled in, dissing the event and generally mocking the expense involved when there are other issues to manage. A sampling follows. Note that these are merely illustrative examples of a general vibe. I have precisely zero beef with anyone in the following tweets or articles:

How’s this headline:

Branson, Musk, and Bezos who could tackle child hunger, climate change, racial injustice, health care, the rise of fascism etc and still be richer than 99.9999% of us choose to be narcissistic assholes and shoot their money into space.

That about right?

— Mary L Trump (@MaryLTrump) July 11, 2021

Branson wants to bring space to the average person.
How about food?
let's do that one first.

✨☮💙 Kim Ruxton 💙☮✨ (@KimRuxton) July 11, 2021

And from the media side of things, this stood out today from the Tribune:

I disagree.

Sure, it’s maddening that Jeff Bezos’ new yacht will require a second boat so that he can have a mobile heliport on the go — his new boat has sails, so you can’t chopper to it — while the company that built his fortune churns through workers with abandon and squeezes its drivers so much that they have to piss in bottles due to scheduling constraints.

And, yes, Branson is annoying quite a lot of the time. He also owns an island and likes himself too much.

Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson celebrate launch of first passengers into space

By Devin Coldewey

Virgin Galactic has successfully taken its first passengers to space, including its billionaire founder Richard Branson. The event, at Spaceport America in New Mexico, was a field day for press and employees, complete with an early-morning Khalid set and hero walk by Branson and the crew.

“Just imagine a world where people of all ages, all backgrounds, from anywhere, of any gender, of any ethnicity, have equal access to space,” Branson said on returning. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age!”

The remark is a bit premature, of course — that world is still some distance off, but it’s true that this flight marks a historic moment in the nascent space tourism industry. At present, leisurenauts are still an elite class, but the events of the day suggest we’re closer than ever to seeing that change.

After an incredibly early start to the day (shuttles to the Spaceport left at 2:45 AM from nearby Las Cruces), the festivities began in true space launch style with a delay. A thunderstorm overnight prevented the team from rolling out the spacecraft, which believe it or not can’t get wet. At the speeds and temperatures involved nothing can be left to chance — like ice forming from water in or on the chassis.

Press set up before dawn at Spaceport America.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Soon the sun rose and crowds arrived: VIPs, employees, a bunch of local students, and Branson’s own guest list (reportedly numbering around 150). Elon Musk showed up as well, presumably to congratulate his fellow spaceman personally, billionaire to billionaire.

At 8:30 local time the engines started on VMS Eve, the “mothership” carrying VSS Unity, the rocket-powered spaceplane that Branson, along with Virgin Galactic’s Beth Moses (her second flight), Sirisha Bandla, and Colin Bennett, would ride to the edge of space.

VMS Eve takes off. Image Credits: Virgin Galactic

Eve was wheels up at 8:40, commencing a wait on the ground while it climbed to about 36,000 feet. Unity detached and began its rocket-powered climb at about 9:24, reaching Mach 3 and after two minutes reached its peak altitude of about 282,000 feet — about 53 miles, as planned.

The crew and passengers enjoyed a minute or two of microgravity, which they seem to have employed gainfully:

Image Credits: Virgin Galactic

A planned mid-air speech by Branson proved impossible as the signal cut in and out, but the craft itself proved more reliable, touching down at 9:38.

In a celebratory stage appearance (following a brief Khalid concert) Branson expanded on the ideas cut short in transmission, beginning with: “It’s hot, I’m sorry,” but quickly moving on to more inspiring words. “I have dreamt about this moment since I was a child, but nothing could have prepared me for the view of Earth from space. We are at the vanguard of a new space age.”

At a press conference following shortly after, Branson fielded questions from elementary schoolers, and the crew described the view from space and whether they saw any planets. (No, just an alien that the pilot shook off during descent, Branson said. At least one kid I saw believed him.)

A long road to space

Virgin Galactic Pilots on their way to the Virgin Galactic Spaceflight System

It’s a triumph long in the making for Virgin Galactic and Branson. The company was ahead of the curve in its space tourism ambitions, but in 2014 a test flight ended in a horrific crash and the death of one of the pilots.

Virgin’s engineers and leaders worked through it, however, and built a stronger, better spacecraft which was christened Unity by Stephen Hawking, who was then still living — and, not surprisingly, hoping to hitch a ride some day.

Pilots flew test flight after test flight over the years, slowly ratcheting up the power and finally, in 2018, touching the edge of space. On that note there is some slight controversy in that the exact altitude where the atmosphere gives way to space isn’t completely agreed upon. Some authorities place the Kármán line, as the imaginary boundary is called, at 100 kilometers above sea level, others at 50 miles, or about 80 kilometers.

Unity 22 spreads its “feathers” during descent. Image Credits: Virgin Galactic

Virgin uses the lower estimate, while its arch rival, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, uses the higher. This led Bezos to throw shade on Virgin’s flights, saying he didn’t want his customers to have an “asterisk” on their trip to space. When I asked about this before, a Virgin representative said they use the same standard that NASA and the U.S. Air Force does: pilots are given their “astronaut wings” if they pass the 50-mile mark.

Kármán quibbles aside, the race to send passengers to space has been heating up lately, and Bezos recently announced that he would be flying aboard the first crewed launch of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket on July 22 — with his brother, a mystery passenger who has paid $28M for the privilege, and Wally Funk, among the first women trained to be astronauts in 1961 but who never made it to space.

But Branson rained on his parade by announcing shortly afterward that he would fly aboard Virgin’s first passenger launch to space (crew and pilots have been up several times) about a week earlier.

While Branson has good-naturedly denied any competition between himself and Bezos (“We wish jeff the absolute best,” he said, adding that Bezos sent over a message of goodwill before the flight) it’s hard to believe that’s completely true. Though neither man has anything to prove at this point, there must surely be some satisfaction in Branson’s not merely going to space (a lifelong dream, as he tells it) but doing so before his upstart rival. However much he denies it, the narrative is too tempting to quash completely.

The direction forward for Virgin Galactic now is, clearly, towards paying customers, of which there are plenty lined up. Of course, they all have a quarter of a million dollars to spare, but you might not, and for you Branson has a special offer. They’ve partnered with Omaze, and donations to the chosen charity will enter you into a raffle of sorts, with the winner receiving two tickets on an upcoming Virgin Galactic flight. “And with my Willy Wonka hat on, a guided tour of Spaceport America, given by yours truly,” Branson added.

Branson expressed hope that this would become an ongoing thing as long as donations continue, so perhaps this is the answer to the question of how they hope to, as he so frequently promises, make space available to everyone.

You can watch the whole day unfold as it happened in Virgin Galactic’s archived livestream below:

Watch as Virgin Galactic’s first passenger flight takes off with Richard Branson on board

By Devin Coldewey

Virgin Galactic is set to launch its first passengers to space tomorrow morning, and you can watch the whole thing right here. The launch is scheduled for 7:30 AM Pacific, with streaming festivities (including commentary by Stephen Colbert) starting on the hour.

Update: The launch has been delayed by 1.5 hours due to weather. New target time is 7:30 AM Pacific, 8:30 AM local.

This launch is the 22nd for VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s first spacecraft to leave the atmosphere. As before, Unity will leave the Spaceport attached to the belly of VMS Eve, which will take it up out of the thickest part of the atmosphere.

Unity will drop off and ignite its rocket engine, reaching speeds approaching Mach 3 until it reaches the 80 kilometer mark, the lowest altitude considered to be in space. When the engines shut off, the pilots and passengers will enjoy a short period of weightlessness and of course stunning views.

The whole thing will be livestreamed, from the ground and, connectivity permitting, from the craft itself. When they return safely there will be a triumphant press conference and, remarkably, live music from Khalid.

I’ll be there on the ground, but you can see what I see by tuning in to the official stream below:

8 founders, leaders highlight fintech and deep tech as Bristol’s top sectors

By Mike Butcher

The U.K. is gaining in popularity as a great place to start a tech firm. The country is quickly catching up to China on the tech investment front, with VC investments reaching a record of $15 billion in 2020, according to TechNation. A global health crisis notwithstanding, London remained a favorite for investors. U.K. cities made up a fifth of the top 20 European cities, with names such as Oxford, Dublin, Edinburgh and Cambridge rising to the fore in 2020.

Bristol proved especially popular among tech investors last year — local businesses raked in an impressive $414 million in 2020, making it the third-largest U.K. city for tech investment. The city also has the most fintech startups per head in the U.K. outside London, according to Whitecap’s 2019-2020 Ecosystem Report.

Efforts by the city’s private and public sectors to modernize the city have helped it rank among the top smart cities in the U.K., attracting a bevy of tech entrepreneurs. Its proximity to London has meant that it is a good alternative for founders looking for a more affordable stay while letting them tap the capital’s financial resources. The University of Bristol also has the largest robotics department in Europe.


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Bristol is also home to an important startup accelerator, SETsquared. A collaborative effort by the five universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey, the accelerator has supported over 4,000 entrepreneurs and helped their startups raise a total of £1.8 billion. Other startup support players include the new Science Creates VC fund, set up by entrepreneur Harry Destecroix, and TechSPARK Engine Shed.

Key emerging startups from Bristol include Graphcore, Open Bionics, Ultraleap, Immersive Labs and Five AI.

To get a better idea of the state of the tech ecosystem and the investor outlook for this city, we surveyed founders, leaders and executives involved in nurturing Bristol’s startup ecosystem.

The survey revealed that the city has a robust renewable, zero-carbon and fintech startup landscape. Robotics, VR, bio, quantum, digital and deep tech are also areas showing promise. As for the investing scene, although Bristol has a healthy angel network, the city lacks institutional VC, but with London only a drive or train ride away, this has not proved a significant problem.

We surveyed:


Coralie Hassanaly, innovation consultant, DRIAD

Which sectors is Bristol’s tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What does it lack?
Bristol is strong in renewable and zero-carbon innovation, fintech and robotics. It’s weak in industry 4.0.

Which are the most interesting startups in Bristol?
Graphcore, LettUs Grow, Open Bionics, Ultraleap and YellowDog.

What are the tech investors like in Bristol? What’s their focus?
A lot of focus on fintech, I think.

With the shift to remote working, do you think people will stay in Bristol or will they move out? Will others move in?
Bristol is a great middle ground between a large dynamic city (plus it’s not far from London) and access to nice countryside area. With remote working we can expect it will attract new residents in the next few years.

Who are the key startup people in the city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers)?
Aimee Skinner, Abigail Frear and Stuart Harrison.

Where do you think the city’s tech scene will be in five years?
Second major city in U.K. innovation.

Pete Read, CEO and founder, Persona Education

Which sectors is Bristol’s tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What does it lack?
Bristol is strong in media/animation, edtech, social impact, health and science. I’m most excited by edtech and the possibility to reach and positively impact millions of students via online learning. It’s weaker in hardware and fintech.

Which are the most interesting startups in Bristol?
Kaedim, Persona Education and One Big Circle.

What are the tech investors like in Bristol? What’s their focus?
There are several very active tech investment networks coming from several angles, e.g., university-led, groups of private angels and tech incubators. The great thing is they all collaborate and share resources, ideas and expertise in initiatives such as The Engine Shed and Silicon Gorge.

With the shift to remote working, do you think people will stay in Bristol or will they move out? Will others move in?
More people are moving in, as Bristol has a great urban lifestyle with easy access to the countryside and Southwest/Wales holiday spots, and an international airport 20 minutes from the center.

Who are the key startup people in the city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers)?
Jerry Barnes at Bristol PE Club; Abby Frear at TechSPARK; Briony Phillips at Rocketmakers; Jack Jordan-Connelly at SETsquared.

Where do you think the city’s tech scene will be in five years?
It’s developing rapidly with lots of support, so it will be bigger, attracting more investment and definitely more on the international scene five years from now.

Kiran Krishnamurthy, CEO, AI Labs

Which sectors is Bristol’s tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What does it lack?
Our tech ecosystem is strong in the aerospace and defense sector. We are excited by the scope and scale of digital transformation opportunities with AI available in this sector. The main weakness in this sector is the slow pace of transformation, especially now due to the pandemic.

Which are the most interesting startups in Bristol?
Graphcore and YellowDog.

What are the tech investors like in Bristol? What’s their focus?
Compared to the U.K. tech sector average, Bristol has a very low proportion of established companies (4% versus 8%), a higher proportion of seed stage companies (42% versus 37%), and a higher death rate (21% versus 17%). It’s a particularly young ecosystem.

With the shift to remote working, do you think people will stay in Bristol or will they move out? Will others move in?
It is possible that people moving out of London will come into Bristol due to the transport links, strong ecosystem and beautiful nature of the city.

Where do you think the city’s tech scene will be in five years?
I wouldn’t be surprised if Bristol turns out to be San Francisco of Europe!

Simon Hall, director, Airway Medical

Which sectors is Bristol’s tech ecosystem strong in? What does it lack?
Bristol is strong in the medtech, veterinary, industrial sectors.

With the shift to remote working, do you think people will stay in Bristol or will they move out? Will others move in?
Others have moved in.

Who are the key startup people in the city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers)?
SETsquared.

Where do you think the city’s tech scene will be in five years?
We will see massive growth in five years.

Ben Miles, CEO, Spin Up Science

Which sectors is Bristol’s tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What does it lack?
Our sector is weak in entrepreneurial ambition among researchers, and so suffers from low rates of deep tech spinout activity from leading universities. We are most excited by the step change in activity we have seen in the past two years and culture shift towards innovation.

Which are the most interesting startups in Bristol?
Rosa Biotech, Albotherm and CytoSeek.

What are the tech investors like in Bristol? What’s their focus?
Medium strength in shallow tech; currently weak in deep tech.

With the shift to remote working, do you think people will stay in Bristol or will they move out? Will others move in?
People are moving in.

Who are the key startup people in the city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers)?
Spin Up Science, Science Creates and Science Angel Syndicate.

Where do you think the city’s tech scene will be in five years?
Very strong in deep tech with an invested local community of entrepreneurs, incubators and investors.

Rupert Baines, ex-CEO, UltraSoC

Which sectors is Bristol’s tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What does it lack?
Bristol is strong in wireless (5G, 60 GHz, etc.), semiconductors (especially processors, AI/ML and parallel architectures), robotics and other hard tech/deep tech.

Which are the most interesting startups in Bristol?
Graphcore, Ultraleap, Blu Wireless and Five AI.

What are the tech investors like in Bristol? What’s their focus?
It’s limited. There are some angels, but few locally focused funds.

With the shift to remote working, do you think people will stay in Bristol or will they move out? Will others move in?
Much the same: People choose to live in Bristol/Bath for quality of life. Much of the work is already external — commuting to London.

Who are the key startup people in the city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers)?
Nigel Toon, Simon Knowles, Stan Boland, David May and Nick Sturge.

Where do you think the city’s tech scene will be in five years?
Much stronger, with more processor and hardware activity.

Mathieu Johnsson, CEO and co-founder, Marble

Which sectors is Bristol’s tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What does it lack?
Bristol has a strong robotics, aerospace and renewables scene. I’m most excited to see how the legacy in aerospace in Bristol will translate to future industry-defining companies. The ecosystem is weak on the investor side, though London VCs are less than a two-hour train journey away.

Which are the most interesting startups in Bristol?
Graphcore, Ultraleap and Open Bionics.

With the shift to remote working, do you think people will stay in Bristol or will they move out? Will others move in?
I believe Bristol will become more attractive.

Who are the key startup people in the city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers)?
Tom Carter at Ultraleap, and Joel Gibbard at Open Bionics.

Where do you think the city’s tech scene will be in five years?
Getting closer to London and Cambridge.

Chris Erven, CEO, KETS Quantum Security

Which sectors is Bristol’s tech ecosystem strong in? What are you most excited by? What does it lack?
Bristol has a strong biotech, quantum, digital, science-based/deep tech ecosystem. I’m excited by this eclectic city with exciting people that think differently.

Which are the most interesting startups in Bristol?
Any QTEC, SETsquared, or UnitDX members and alumni.

What are the tech investors like in Bristol? What’s their focus?
Very early/nascent, mostly angels.

With the shift to remote working, do you think people will stay in Bristol or will they move out? Will others move in?
Probably move in! Beautiful green spaces around, lots of interesting, independent shops. And (just about) commutable from London.

Who are the key startup people in the city (e.g., investors, founders, lawyers, designers)?
The incubators — QTEC, QTIC, SETsquared and UnitDX; Bristol Private Equity Club; Harry Destecroix.

Where do you think the city’s tech scene will be in five years?
Buzzing. More great startups and VCs moving in.

Nixie’s drone-based water sampling could save cities time and money

By Devin Coldewey

Regularly testing waterways and reservoirs is a never-ending responsibility for utility companies and municipal safety authorities, and generally — as you might expect — involves either a boat or at least a pair of waders. Nixie does the job with a drone instead, making the process faster, cheaper, and a lot less wet.

The most common methods of testing water quality haven’t changed in a long time, partly because they’re effective and straightforward, and partly because really, what else are you going to do? No software or web platform out there is going to reach into the middle of the river and pull out a liter of water.

But with the advent of drones powerful and reliable enough to deploy in professional and industrial circumstances, the situation has changed. Nixie is a solution by the drone specialists at Reign Maker, involving either a custom-built sample collection arm or an in-situ sensor arm.

The sample collector is basically a long vertical arm with a locking cage for a sample container. You put the empty container in there, fly the drone out to the location, then submerge the arm. When it flies back, the filled container can be taken out while the drone hovers and a fresh one put in its place to bring to the next spot. (This switch can be done safely in winds up to 18 MPH and sampling in currents up to 5 knots, the company said.)

A drone dips a sample container in a river.

Image Credits: Reign Maker

This allows for quick sampling at multiple locations — the drone’s battery will last about 20 minutes, enough for two to four samples depending on the weather and distance. Swap the battery out and drive to the next location and do it all again.

For comparison, Reign Maker pointed to New York’s water authority, which collects 30 samples per day from boats and other methods, at an approximate cost (including labor, boat fuel, etc) of $100 per sample. Workers using Nixie were able to collect an average of 120 samples per day, for around $10 each. Sure, New York is probably among the higher cost locales for this (like everything else) but the deltas are pretty huge. (The dipper attachment itself costs $850, but doesn’t come with a drone.)

It should be mentioned that the drone is not operating autonomously; it has a pilot who will be flying with line of sight (which simplifies regulations and requirements). But even so, that means a team of two, with a handful of spare batteries, can cover the same space  that would normally take a boat crew and more than a little fuel. Currently the system works with the M600 and M300 RTK drones from DJI.

Mockup of the Nixie water testing app showing readings for various locations.

Image Credits: Reign Maker

The drone method has the added benefits of having precise GPS locations for each sample and of not disturbing the water when it dips in. No matter how carefully you step or pilot a boat, you’re going to be pushing the water all over the place, potentially affecting the contents of the sample, but that’s not the case if you’re hovering overhead.

In development is a smarter version of the sampler that includes a set of sensors that can do on-site testing for all the most common factors: temperature, pH, troubling organisms, various chemicals. Skipping the step of bringing the water back to a lab for testing streamlines the process immensely, as you might expect.

Right now Reign Maker is working with New York’s Department of Environmental Protection and in talks with other agencies. While the system would take some initial investment, training, and getting used to, it’s probably hard not to be tempted by the possibility of faster and cheaper testing.

Ultimately the company hopes to offer (in keeping with the zeitgeist) a more traditional SaaS offering involving water quality maps updating in real time with new testing. That too is still in the drawing-board phase, but once a few customers sign up it starts looking a lot more attractive.

Ukrainian police arrest multiple Clop ransomware gang suspects

By Carly Page

Multiple suspects believed to be linked to the Clop ransomware gang have been detained in Ukraine after a joint operation from law enforcement agencies in Ukraine, South Korea, and the United States.

The Cyber Police Department of the National Police of Ukraine confirmed that six arrests were made after searches at 21 residences in  the capital Kyiv and nearby regions. While it’s unclear whether the defendants are affiliates or core developers of the ransomware operation, they are accused of running a “double extortion” scheme, in which victims who refuse to pay the ransom are threatened with the leak of data stolen from their networks prior to their files being encrypted.

“It was established that six defendants carried out attacks of malicious software such as ‘ransomware’ on the servers of American and [South] Korean companies,” alleged Ukraine’s national police force in a statement.

The police also seized equipment from the alleged Clop ransomware gang,  said to behind total financial damages of about $500 million. This includes computer equipment, several cars — including a Tesla and Mercedes, and 5 million Ukrainian Hryvnia (around $185,000) in cash. The authorities also claim to have successfully shut down the server infrastructure used by the gang members to launch previous attacks.

“Together, law enforcement has managed to shut down the infrastructure from which the virus spreads and block channels for legalizing criminally acquired cryptocurrencies,” the statement added.

These attacks first began in February 2019, when the group attacked four Korean companies and encrypted 810 internal services and personal computers. Since, Clop — often styled as “Cl0p” — has been linked to a number of high-profile ransomware attacks. These include the breach of U.S. pharmaceutical giant ExecuPharm in April 2020 and the attack on South Korean e-commerce giant E-Land in November that forced the retailer to close almost half of its stores.

Clop is also linked to the ransomware attack and data breach at Accellion, which saw hackers exploit flaws in the IT provider’s File Transfer Appliance (FTA) software to steal data from dozens of its customers. Victims of this breach include Singaporean telecom Singtel, law firm Jones Day, grocery store chain Kroger, and cybersecurity firm Qualys.

At the time of writing, the dark web portal that Clop uses to share stolen data is still up and running, although it hasn’t been updated for several weeks. However, law enforcement typically replaces the targets’ website with their own logo in the event of a successful takedown, which suggests that members of the gang could still be active.

“The Cl0p operation has been used to disrupt and extort organizations globally in a variety of sectors including telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, aerospace, and technology,” said John Hultquist, vice president of analysis at Mandiant’s threat intelligence unit. “The actor FIN11 has been strongly associated with this operation, which has included both ransomware and extortion, but it is unclear if the arrests included FIN11 actors or others who may also be associated with the operation.”

Hultquist said the efforts of the Ukrainian police “are a reminder that the country is a strong partner for the U.S. in the fight against cybercrime and authorities there are making the effort to deny criminals a safe harbor.”

The alleged perpetrators face up to eight years in prison on charges of unauthorized interference in the work of computers, automated systems, computer networks, or telecommunications networks and laundering property obtained by criminal means.

News of the arrests comes as international law enforcement turns up the heat on ransomware gangs. Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it had seized most of the ransom paid to members of DarkSide by Colonial Pipeline.

SpaceX launches Dragon cargo spacecraft to the Space Station with new Falcon 9

By Aria Alamalhodaei

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is once again heading to the International Space Station.

The company launched its 22nd Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission for NASA on Thursday. This is the fifth capsule SpaceX has sent to ISS in the last twelve months, SpaceX director of Dragon mission management Sarah Walker noted in a media briefing Tuesday. It’s also the first launch of the year on a new Falcon 9 rocket booster.

The rocket took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 1:29 PM eastern time, right on schedule despite the threat of storm clouds from the south and east. The first stage separated as planned and touched down on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship in the Atlantic Ocean eight minutes after launch. The second stage, which takes the capsule to orbit, separated 12 minutes after launch, also right on schedule.

Image Credits: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 Rocket launch vehicle is sending more than 7,300 pounds of research materials, supplies, and hardware, including new solar arrays, to the ISS crew. It’s the second mission under SpaceX’s new CRS contract with NASA; the first took place last December.

Dragon is carrying a number of research experiments to be conducted on the ISS, including oral bacteria to test germ growth with Colgate toothpaste; a number of tardigrades (also affectionately called water bears), primordial organisms that will attempt to fare and reproduce in space environments; and an investigation that will study the effects of microgravity on the formation of kidney stones – an ailment that many crew members display an increased susceptibility to during spaceflight.

The capsule is also delivering fresh food, including apples, navel oranges, lemons, and avocados.

Of the over 7,300 pounds of cargo, around 3,000 pounds will be taken up by a new roll-out, “flex blanket” solar array developed by space infrastructure company Redwire. As opposed to more traditional rigid paneled solar arrays, flex blanket technology provides more mass and performance benefits, Redwire technical director Matt LaPointe told TechCrunch.

The arrays were placed in the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk. It’s the first of three missions to send iROSA solar arrays to the station, with each mission carrying two arrays, LaPointe said. Once installed, the six iROSA arrays will collectively produce over 120KW of power. Redwire, which announced in March that it would go public via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, says the new iROSA arrays will improve the ISS’s power generation by 20-30%.

The Dragon capsule is set to arrive at the space station at around 5 AM on June 5, where it will autonomously dock on a port of the Harmony module of the ISS. It will spend more than a month with the station before splashing down in the Atlantic with research and return cargo.

Japanese space company ispace aims to send landers to the moon

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Tokyo-based ispace has been selected to deliver rovers from Canada and Japan to the lunar surface after they launch aboard SpaceX rockets. The company will use its recently revealed Hakuto-R lander for both missions, currently scheduled for 2022 and 2023.

The Canadian Space Agency selected three private Canadian companies, each with separate scientific missions, to ride the lander. Mission Control Space Services, Canadensys and NGC are the first companies to receive awards under the CSA’s Capability Demonstration program, part of the agency’s Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program. LEAP, unveiled by the Canadian government in February 2020, earmarks $150 million over five years to support in-space demonstrations and science missions from Canadian private industry.

As part of the mission, the ispace lander will deliver the United Arab Emirates’ The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC)’s 22 pound rover, “Rashid.” The rover will be equipped with an artificial intelligence flight computer from space robotics company Mission Control Space Services. Mission Control’s AI will use deep-learning algorithms to recognize lunar geology as the Rashid rover traverses the surface.

ispace will carry cameras “to capture key events during the mission” for Canadensys. The Japanese company will also collect lunar imagery data for demonstration of NGC’s autonomous navigation system.

“We are honored that all three of the companies awarded by CSA have each entrusted ispace’s services to carry out their operations on the lunar surface,” ispace founder and CEO Takeshi Hakamada said in a statement. “We see this as a show of the trust that ispace has developed with CSA over the past years, as well as a recognition of ispace’s positive position in the North American market.”

ispace will also be transporting a transformable lunar robot payload to the moon for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), in addition to conducting operations and providing lunar data. The data collected on this mission, Mission 2, will be used to aid the design of a future crewed pressurized rover.

JAXA’s lunar robot will be only around 80mm in diameter before it transforms to its surface form, and will weigh only around 250 grams. That mission is scheduled to take place in 2023. ispace did not disclosed the financial terms of the deals.

“While the robot travels on the lunar surface, images on behavior of the regolith, and images of lunar surface taken by the robot and the camera on the lunar lander will be sent to the mission control center via the lunar lander,” JAXA said in a news release. “The acquired data will be used for evaluation of the localization algorithm and the impact of the regolith on driving performance of the crewed pressurized rover.”

ispace unveiled their Hakuto-R lander design in July 2020. The Hakuto project was born out of the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, in which teams competed to be the first to send a lunar rover to the moon, have it travel 500 meters and send back to Earth photos and video. None of the five finalists, including Hakuto, were able to complete a launch, and the competition subsequently ended in 2018 without a winner.

The MBRSC and JAXA rovers will have different deployment mechanisms from the landers, though Hakamada did not provide further details during a media briefing Wednesday.

The landers are being assembled in Germany and the assembly phase has just started, Hakamada said. “So we’re very confident we will meet this schedule,” he added.

Using water on the lunar surface is one of ispace’s long-term objectives. The company hopes to have more capability in the future to sustain resource utilization activites, Hakamada said.

This is only one of several lunar missions launching on SpaceX rockets. NASA announced in April that the space startup was selected to send humans to the lunar surface as part of its Artemis project, at a total award value of $2.89 billion. SpaceX will also be taking payloads from Firefly Aerosapce to take up its lunar lander in 2023.

NASA’s new lunar vehicle could be built by GM and Lockheed Martin

By Aria Alamalhodaei

The last time humans visited the moon in 1972, they got around on a relatively simple battery-powered vehicle. As NASA prepares for the next crewed mission to the moon, it’s looking to give the lunar rover an upgrade.

Lockheed Martin and General Motors said Wednesday they’re working together to develop a next-generation lunar vehicle designed to be faster and capable of traveling farther distances than its predecessor. If the project is selected by NASA, the rover would be used on the upcoming Artemis missions. The first mission, which will be an uncrewed test flight, is scheduled for November. The request for proposals will likely be published in the third or fourth quarter of this year, executives said at a media briefing Wednesday. NASA will award the contract after evaluating the submitted proposals.

The previous rover was only capable of traveling less than five miles from the Apollo landing site, limiting the astronauts’ ability to collect important data on far-flung lunar locales, like the north and south poles. The Moon’s circumference is nearly 7,000 miles. The two companies are aiming to improve the specs, Lockheed’s VP for lunar exploration Kirk Shireman said, noting that the exact materials used for the new rover, its range and other capabilities have yet to be determined.

GM will also be developing an autonomous driving system for the rover, which executives said Wednesday will improve safety and the ability for astronauts to collect samples and conduct other scientific research. GM is investing more than $27 billion through 2025 in electric and autonomous vehicle technologies and it aims to bring that research to the lunar rover project, Jeffrey Ryder, VP of growth and strategy at GM Defense, said. “We’re heads-down right now in investigating how we would take those capabilities and apply them to specific missions and operation associated with the Artemis program.”

GM also said it will be using its earth-bound research into battery and propulsion systems in developing the rover. Ryder anticipates that the rover program will lead to other market opportunities.

Both companies have supplied technology for NASA missions before, including its lunar missions. Auto manufacturer GM helped develop the previous lunar rover that was used during the Apollo era, including its chassis and wheels. It also manufactured and integrated guidance and navigational systems for the program. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin’s experience extends to building spacecraft and power systems that have been included on every NASA mission to Mars.

The companies said this was “one of several initiatives” they’re working on together, with further announcements regarding other projects expected in the future.

Beta Technologies adds $368 million in Series A funding for its electric aviation ecosystem

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Electric aviation startup Beta Technologies closed a $368 million Series A funding round on Tuesday, with investments from Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund. The new capital is the second round of funding announced by the company this year, after the company raised $143 million in private capital in March.

The funding round was led by Fidelity Management & Research Company with undisclosed additions from Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, a $2 billion fund established in September 2019 to advance the development of sustainable technologies. The Climate Pledge fund has also made contributions toward electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian, battery recycler Redwood Materials and ZeroAvia, a hydrogen fuel cell aviation company.

The company’s valuation is now at $1.4 billion, CNBC reported, putting it in a small circle of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) companies to have achieved valuations at over a billion dollars.

Unlike developers Joby Aviation and Archer Aviation, who have each also achieved valuations over the billion-dollar mark, Beta is not primarily focused on air taxis. Instead, it’s been targeting defense applications, cargo delivery, and medical logistics, as well as building out its network of rapid-charging systems in the northeast U.S. Its debut aircraft, the ALIA-250c, was built to serve these various solutions by being capable of carrying six people or a pilot and 1,500 pounds.

The Vermont-based startup has already scored major partnerships in all of these industries, including with United Therapeutics to transport synthetic organs for human transplant; UPS, who purchased 10 ALIA aircraft with the option of buying 140 more; and the U.S. Air Force.

The company has not entirely ignored passenger transportation, however, announcing last month a partnership with Blade Urban Air Mobility for five aircraft to be delivered in 2024.

Beta was the first company to be awarded airworthiness approval from the U.S. Air Force. The company expects to sign a contract in June with the Air Force to allow access to Beta’s aircraft and flight simulators in Washington, D.C. and Springfield, Ohio. However, it still must achieve certification with the Federal Aviation Administration.

The funds will be used to refine the ALIA’s electric propulsion system and controls, as well as to build out manufacturing space, including expanding its footprint in Vermont on land at the Burlington International Airport, the company said in a news release Tuesday.

Benchmark Space Systems and Starfish Space team up to advance orbital docking and refueling

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Humans may not have totally mastered getting objects to space, but we’ve done a pretty good job so far. The hundreds of satellites that orbit the Earth are proof enough that ‘send stuff to space’ is firmly in humanity’s capacity. But what about refueling, repairing, or even adding capabilities to spacecraft or satellites once they’re up there?

In the past few years, a host of companies have started to turn what has long been seen as a pipe dream into a real possibility. Now, satellite servicing company Starfish Space and space mobility provider Benchmark Space Systems will be entering into a new partnership aimed at advancing these much-needed capabilities – and their first demonstration will take place next month, on space startup Orbit Fab’s Tanker 1 mission.

Orbit Fab, which was a finalist in our TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield in 2019, will be sending up an operational fuel depot on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in June. The tanker is the first of what Orbit Fab is envisioning as a “gas station in space” – in-orbit propellant available to satellite customers who will no longer be limited in terms of their spacecraft’s active life by the amount of fuel they take up on launch.

Benchmark Space Systems and Orbit Fab already have an agreement to combine Benchmark’s Halcyon thruster system and the fuel depot startup’s fluid transfer interface (imagine a refueling apparatus) into an integrated propulsion package.

This is where Starfish Space comes in. It will be testing its CEPHALOPOD rendezvous, proximity operations and docking (RPOD) software with Benchmark’s Halcyon thruster system to make sure that the refueling demonstration is as accurate as possible. The RPOD software is entirely autonomous and can give small servicing vehicles up to 8 times more maneuvering capability, the company says.

Demonstration missions like the one in June are just the beginning. Refueling capacity could not only extend the mission length of satellites and other spacecraft, it could help open the door to new types of space missions and the emerging space economy.

Aevum is building a modular autonomous drone for space and terrestrial deliveries

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Logistics and delivery providers are territorially split between Earth and space, with companies like Amazon and FedEx working to master ground, air and drone transportation, and new entrants like SpaceX honing its expertise in space launch.

Autonomous transportation startup Aevum wants to do both. And it was just issued a patent that will help it move dexterously between space launch to low Earth orbit, and air cargo and drone deliveries here on Earth.

The key is Aevum’s unmanned aircraft system, which it calls Ravn X. So far, Aevum has only publicly discussed its plans for the Ravn X in the context of space launches. It works like this: the Ravn X uses conventional jet fuel and takes off from an airport runway, like a plane, but it has a rocket nested in its belly that deploys at high altitude to deliver payload to space. As the second stage detaches, the Ravn X returns to Earth using conventional touch-down techniques, ready for another delivery.

The new Aevum patent, which was issued on May 4, is for a unique modular payload design positioned in the belly of the drone. With the new system described in the patent, that rocket payload module can be switched out for a cargo bay to carry deliveries around the world, or a drone module that can carry up to 264 smaller drones for last-mile delivery services. Theoretically, the Ravn X could depart from an airport, deliver its payload to space, return back to the airport to be reloaded with a filled cargo module, then take off again for earthbound deliveries.

While the exact amount a Ravn X can carry depends on the distance it’s traveling, the Ravn X air cargo will be able to carry up to 15,000 lbs and the space delivery payload will be able to carry up to 330 lbs. As of now, the rockets are expendable, but the company has plans for 100% reusability across its space launch and air cargo operations.

Aevum’s business model includes operating autonomous transportation and logistics as a service and partnering with existing logistics providers. One interesting possibility for the company is partnerships with logistics giants that so far have been effectively cut-off from space deliveries due to the vertically integrated models of companies like SpaceX, which handles logistics and launch services in-house.

“We aim to enable FedEx, Amazon, UPS, DHL, and others to build upon the logistics infrastructure they have already mastered,” Aevum CEO Jay Skylus said. “Any or all of these respected giants could partner with Aevum or purchase a fleet of Ravn X for their own and add space launch to their offerings. Space logistics should no longer be separated from general logistics.”

Aevum founder and CEO Jay Skylus with Ravn X

Likewise, large companies that have struggled to establish drone delivery services could use the Ravn X’s drone module to deliver and deposit drones over a central area, like a city center, for last-mile deliveries.

“The patent is so significant because what the patent allows you to do is say – the existing FedEx and UPS logistics architecture that’s sorting 70,000 packages an hour right now could not service the needs of defense and space because fundamentally that logistics infrastructure was designed to go from Earth to Earth and not Earth to space,” Skylus explained. “But if you really look at the problem and study it in detail, you know the missing link to allow this existing infrastructure to now be able to service the space domain – that missing link is what we just patented.”

Skylus imagines Ravn X fleets operating around-the-clock. “In my company, what matters is asset utilization. For any reusable flying machine, it doesn’t generate revenue on the ground. My machines will fly around the clock, every day,” he said in a statement.

The company still has a ways to go before it still takes to the skies, however. Ravn X is still undergoing ground test operations and will begin flight testing this year at an FAA-licensed testing facility for unmanned aircraft systems. Aevum’s intention is to fly with the United States Air Force’s ASLON-45 mission this fall and to take its air cargo service live next year.

Because the Ravn X has so many different capabilities, it will need to pursue a few different FAA certifications: for space launches, a license from the FAA Commercial Space Transportation office; for cargo operations, an FAA aircraft type certification and standard airworthiness certification.

“What we’ve patented is the next layer and large batch of connections in the global logistics infrastructure,” Skylus said. “Space logistics shouldn’t be separated from logistics that already exist.”

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