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Yesterday — August 5th 2020Your RSS feeds

Harness makes first acquisition, snagging open source CI company Drone.io

By Ron Miller

Harness has made a name for itself creating tools like continuous delivery (CD) for software engineers to give them the kind of power that has been traditionally reserved for companies with large engineering teams like Google, Facebook and Netflix. Today, the company announced it has acquired Drone.io, an open source continuous integration (CI) company, marking the company’s first steps into open source, as well as its first acquisition.

The companies did not share the purchase price.

“Drone is a continuous integration software. It helps developers to continuously build, test and deploy their code. The project was started in 2012, and it was the first cloud native, container native continuous integration solution on the market, and we open sourced it,” company co- founder Brad Rydzewski told TechCrunch.

Drone delivers pipeline configuration information as code in a Docker container. Image: Drone.io

While Harness had previously lacked a CI tool to go with its continuous delivery tooling, founder and CEO Jyoti Bansal said this was less about filling in a hole than expanding the current platform.

“I would call it an expansion of our vision and where we were going. As you and I have talked in the past, the mission of Harness is to be a next generation software delivery platform for everyone,” he said. He added that buying Drone had a lot of upside.”It’s all of those things — the size of the open source community, the simplicity of the product — and it [made sense], for Harness and Drone to come together and bring this integrated CI/CD to the market.”

While this is Harness’ first foray into open source, Bansal says it’s just the starting point and they want to embrace open source as a company moving forward. “We are committed togetting more and more involved in open source and actually making even more parts of Harness, our original products, open source over time as well,” he said.

For Drone community members who might be concerned about the acquisition, Bansal said he was “100% committed” to continuing to support the open source Drone product. In fact, Rydzewski said he wanted to team with Harness because he felt he could do so much more with them than he could have done continuing as a stand-alone company.

“Drone was a growing community, a growing project and a growing business. It really came down to I think the timing being right and wanting to partner with a company like Harness to build the future. Drone laid a lot of the groundwork, but it’s a matter of taking it to the next level,” he said.

Bansal says that Harness intends to also offer a commercial version of Drone with some enterprise features on the Harness platform, even while continuing to support the open source side of it.

Drone was founded in 2012. The only money it raised was $28,000 when it participated in the Alchemist Accelerator in 2013, according to Crunchbase data. The deal has closed and Rydzewski has joined the Harness team,

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Drone-deployed sterile mosquitoes could check spread of insect-borne illnesses

By Devin Coldewey

Drone deployment of sterile mosquitoes could accelerate efforts to control their populations and reduce insect-borne disease, according to a proof of concept experiment by a multi-institutional research team. The improved technique could save thousands of lives.

Mosquitoes are a public health hazard around the world, spreading infections like malaria to millions and causing countless deaths and health crises. Although traps and netting offer some protection, the proactive approach of reducing the number of insects has also proven effective. This is accomplished by sterilizing male mosquitoes and releasing them into the wild, where they compete with the other males for food and mates but produce no offspring.

The problem with this approach is it is fairly hands-on, requiring people to travel through mosquito-infested areas to make regular releases of treated males. Some aerial and other dispersal methods have been attempted, but this project from French, Swiss, British, Brazilian, Senegalese and other researchers seems to be the most effective and practical yet.

Mosquitoes grown in bulk and sterilized by radiation are packed at low temperatures (“chilled” mosquitoes don’t fly or bite) into cartridges. These cartridges are kept refrigerated until they can be brought to a target site, where they’re loaded onto a drone.

Thousands of chilled, marked mosquitoes ready for deployment. Image Credit: Bouyer et al.

This drone ascends to a set altitude and travels over the target area, steadily releasing thousands of sterile males as it goes. By staging at the center of a town, the drone operators can reload the craft with new cartridges and send it in more directions, accomplishing dispersal over a huge and perhaps difficult to navigate space more quickly and easily than manual techniques.

The experiment used mosquitoes marked with fluorescent dyes that let the researchers track the effectiveness of their air-dropped mosquitoes, and the new technique shows great improvement over manual methods (on the order of 50% better) — without even getting into the reductions in time and labor. New methods for sterilizing, packing and meting out the insects further gild the results.

The researchers point out that while there are of course plenty of applications for this technique in ordinary times, the extraordinary times of this pandemic present new dangers and opportunities. Comorbidity of COVID-19 and mosquito-borne illnesses is practically unstudied, and disruptions to supply chains and normal insect suppression efforts is likely to lead to spikes in the likes of malaria and dengue fever.

Work like this could lead to improved general health for billions. The researchers’ work appeared in the journal Science Robotics.

Africa Roundup: DHL invests in MallforAfrica, Zipline launches in US, Novastar raises $200M

By Jake Bright

Events in May offered support to the thesis that Africa can incubate tech with global application.

Two startups that developed their business models on the continent — MallforAfrica and Zipline — were tapped by international interests.

DHL acquired a minority stake in Link Commerce, a turn-key e-commerce company that grew out of MallforAfrica.com — a Nigerian digital-retail startup.

Link Commerce offers a white-label solution for doing online-sales in emerging markets.

Retailers can plug into the company’s platform to create a web-based storefront that manages payments and logistics.

Nigerian Chris Folayan founded MallforAfrica in 2011 to bridge a gap in supply and demand for the continent’s consumer markets. While living in the U.S., Folayan noted a common practice among Africans — that of giving lists of goods to family members abroad to buy and bring home.

With MallforAfrica, Folayan aimed to allow people on the continent to purchase goods from global retailers directly online.

The e-commerce site went on to onboard more than 250 global retailers, and now employs 30 people at order processing facilities in Oregon and the U.K.

Folayan has elevated Link Commerce now as the lead company above MallforAfrica.com. He and DHL plan to extend the platform to emerging markets around the world and offer it to companies who want to wrap online stores, payments and logistics solution around their core business.

“Right now the focus is on Africa…but we’re taking this global,” Folayan said.

Another startup developed in Africa, Zipline, was tapped by U.S. healthcare provider Novant for drone delivery of critical medical supplies in the fight against COVID-19.

The two announced a partnership whereby Zipline’s drones will make 32-mile flights on two routes between Novant Health’s North Carolina emergency drone fulfillment center and the nonprofit’s medical center in Huntersville — where front-line healthcare workers are treating coronavirus patients.

Zipline and Novant are touting the arrangement as the first authorized long-range drone logistics delivery flight program in the U.S. The activity has gained approval by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and North Carolina’s Department of Transportation.

The story behind the Novant, Zipline UAV collaboration has a twist: The capabilities for the U.S. operation were developed primarily in Africa. Zipline has a test facility in the San Francisco area, but spent several years configuring its drone delivery model in Rwanda and Ghana.

Image Credits: Novant Health

Co-founded in 2014 by Americans Keller Rinaudo, Keenan Wyrobek and Will Hetzler, Zipline designs its own UAVs, launch systems and logistics software for distribution of critical medical supplies.

The company turned to East Africa in 2016, entering a partnership with the government of Rwanda to test and deploy its drone service in that country. Zipline went live with UAV distribution of life-saving medical supplies in Rwanda in late 2016, claiming the first national drone-delivery program at scale in the world.

The company expanded to Ghana in 2016, where in addition to delivering blood and vaccines by drone, it now distributes COVID-19-related medication and lab samples.

In addition to partner Novant Health, Zipline has caught the attention of big logistics providers, such as UPS — which supported (and studied) the startup’s African operations back to 2016.

The presidents of Rwanda and Ghana  — Paul Kagame and Nana Akufo-Addo, respectively — were instrumental in supporting Zipline’s partnerships in their countries. Other nations on the continent, such as Kenya, South Africa and Zambia, continue to advance commercial drone testing and novel approaches to regulating the sector.

African startups have another $100 million in VC to pitch for after Novastar Ventures’ latest raise.

The Nairobi and Lagos-based investment group announced it has closed $108 million in new commitments to launch its Africa Fund II, which brings Novastar’s total capital to $200 million.

With the additional resources, the firm plans to make 12 to 14 investments across the continent, according to Managing Director Steve Beck .

On-demand mobility powered by electric and solar is coming to Africa.

Vaya Africa, a ride-hail mobility venture founded by Zimbabwean mogul Strive Masiyiwa, launched an electric taxi service and charging network in Zimbabwe this week with plans to expand across the continent.

The South Africa-headquartered company is using Nissan Leaf EVs and has developed its own solar-powered charging stations. Vaya is finalizing partnerships to take its electric taxi services on the road to countries that could include Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto told TechCrunch.

The initiative comes as Africa’s on-demand mobility market has been in full swing for several years, with startups, investors and the larger ride-hail players aiming to bring movement of people and goods to digital platforms.

Uber and Bolt have been operating in Africa’s major economies since 2015, where there are also a number of local app-based taxi startups. Over the last year, there’s been some movement on the continent toward developing EVs for ride-hail and delivery use, primarily around motorcycles.

Beyond environmental benefits, Vaya highlights economic gains for passengers and drivers of shifting to electric in Africa’s taxi markets, where fuel costs compared to personal income is generally high for drivers.

Using solar panels to power the charging station network also helps Vaya’s new EV program overcome some of challenges in Africa’s electricity grid.

Vaya is exploring EV options for other on-demand transit applications — from mini-buses to Tuk Tuk taxis.

In more downbeat news in May, Africa-focused tech talent accelerator Andela had layoffs and salary reductions as a result of the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, CEO Jeremy Johnson confirmed to TechCrunch.

The compensation and staff reductions of 135 bring Andela’s headcount down to 1,199 employees. None of Andela’s engineers were included in the layoffs.

Backed by $181 million in VC from investors that include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the startup’s client-base is comprised of more than 200 global companies that pay for the African developers Andela selects to work on projects.

There’s been a drop in the demand for Andela’s services, according to Johnson.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch  

African tech around the ‘net

Director Ani Acopian breaks down her drone-shot video, ’A World Artists Love’

By Brian Heater

“A drone is a camera,” Ani Acopian begins simply. “And it can fly. It’s basically a flying super-camera! I’d love to see more film and TV productions embrace the nimble and magical nature of drones and use them for more than bird’s eye view establishing shots.”

The director’s video for London-based record label AWAL (Artists Without a Label) unfolds like a minute-long homage to the narrative potential of UAVs. It lifts off from a desk, flies out a sliding-glass window, up over the room, down a stairwell and through a car. There’s a restaurant, some skaters in an empty pool, a parking lot junk yard and a backyard pool party. It’s a bright, sun-shiny picture of Southern California in a time before social distancing turned us all into nocturnal weirdos.

The sequence is stitched together to give the appearance on long shot. That’s particularly the work of some editing magic, which pulled together a still-impressive five shots to create the final product. The result comes in no small part due to the flying of Robert McIntosh. The pilot, who had previously collaborated with director Spike Jonze on the 2012 skate video “Pretty Sweet,” custom built the drone.

Weighing in at 120 grams, it was built by removing the camera from a GoPro Hero 6. That, along with the associated wires, were transferred onto the body of a racing drone. The result was palm-sized and fragile, with a dismal battery life of around three to five minutes a go. But the tiny size also allowed for an extremely nimble flying camera capable of shooting 4K video. The drone was flown at a slow speed, with McIntosh piloting through a pair of FPV racing goggles, with radio guidance from director of photography, Eric Maloney.

Acopian says the nature of the shoot required a fair bit of improvisation on the part of the crew, particularly with some scene utilizing up to 60 extras. Each were given a specific action to perform, while the director sat far away, giving directions through a bullhorn, so as to not be picked up through the camera’s wide-angle lens.

“We weren’t able to rehearse with the cast or block out a flight path with the drone ahead of time,” she explains, “so the biggest challenge was showing up at a new location each morning and figuring out what the drone path, talent blocking and VFX markers would be, then rehearsing as much we could up until around two hours before sundown, at which point we had as many takes as we could fit into that two-hour window to nail the shot. If something wasn’t working, we changed it because otherwise we put the whole scene at risk of not happening.”

Each scene naturally required multiple takes — up to 15 in some cases. And yes, that fragile little drone did crash a few times — though it was mostly no worse for wear.

“There was one crash that gave us all a scare, which happened while filming the scene where a partygoer gets caked,” Acopian adds. “The actress took a step back, directly into the path of the flying drone, and the drone got caught in their hair and turned off. Luckily, she was chill with getting a little bit of her hair snipped off so we could get the drone out, and the guys were able to patch it up in about 20 minutes. Twenty minutes later we were shooting again and she took another cake to the face. A true hero.”

After the shoot, the video was processed through ReelSteady — stabilization software created by McIntosh, which was acquired by GoPro back in March. Then it was effects company Alpha Studios’ job to help stitch things together into one continuous shot.

“We originally wanted to make every transition completely seamless and hidden, but locations and logistics meant that we had to make most of our transitions stylized. We worked closely with Alpha Studios to plot out where one shot would end and where the preceding shot would begin,” producer Jeremiah Warren says. “Kaitlyn Yang, from Alpha Studios, was the on-set VFX supervisor and was key in helping us figure out these transition points that her team blended with VFX in post-production.”

The result is a lovely little glimpse into how drones can extend beyond the customary establishing shot and take a deeper storytelling role in the process.

“I know that the future for droning is very bright, and I anticipate that we’ll start to see drones used in ways that don’t immediately give away their ‘drone-ness,’ like to feign camera movements that would otherwise be difficult to achieve,” says Acopian. “You don’t have to be high to fly! Drones, especially FPV drones, have this fluidity to them that beautifully mirrors the way memories feel to me and I’m excited to see more people play with this to recreate the inner experience so many of us have in a new, relatable way.”

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