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Yesterday — October 21st 2019Your RSS feeds

The Station: Volvo evolves, Skip trips and touchscreen tech

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is back for another week of news and analysis on all the ways people and goods move from Point A to Point B — today and in the future. As always, I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior reporter at TechCrunch.

Portions of the newsletter will be published as an article on the main site after it has been emailed to subscribers (that’s what you’re reading now). To get everything, you have to sign up. And it’s free. To subscribe, go to our newsletters page and click on The Station.

This week, we’re looking at factories in China, scooters in San Francisco and touchscreens in cars, among other things.

Please reach out anytime with tips and feedback. Tell us what you love and don’t love so much. Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

Welcome to micromobbin’ — a weekly dive into the tiny but mighty chaotic world of micromobility. This also happens to be a place where Megan Rose Dickey reigns. Follow her @meganrosedickey.

Uber, Lime and Spin each deployed 500 electric scooters in San Francisco as part of the city’s permitting program. This means residents in SF can now choose from Uber-owned JUMP, Lime, Spin or Scoot scooters. Unfortunately for Skip, the company did not receive a permit to continue operating in the city, which means layoffs at the local level are afoot, Skip CEO Sanjay Dastoor said earlier this week.

Meanwhile, former Uber executive Dmitry Shevelenko unveiled Tortoise, an autonomous repositioning software for micromobility operators. The idea is to help make it easier for these companies to more strategically deploy their respective vehicles and reposition them when needed.

Let’s close this section with the obligatory funding round. Wheels, a pedal-less electric bike-share startup, raised a $50 million round led by DBL Partners. That brought its total funding to $87 million.

Oh, but wait, TC reporter Romain Dillet reminded us that micromobbin’ happens outside of the U.S. too. Uber also announced this past week that it has integrated its app with French startup Cityscoot, which has a fleet of free-floating moped-style scooters.

This is the latest example of Uber’s plan to become a super mobility app that goes well beyond its own network of ride-hailing vehicles.

— Megan Rose Dickey

Snapshot: Touchscreen tech

We’ve seen a lot of different approaches when it comes to engaging with connected car services: head-up displays on the windshield, small screens perched on the dashboard, interactive voice and, of course, connections and mounts for smartphones.

But how about if your whole car becomes the touchscreen? A startup called Sentons is working on technology that could make that happen. The company uses a technique involving processors and AI that emit and read ultrasound to detect physical movement on a surface, such as touch, force or gestures, and users can create “virtual controls” on the fly that work on these surfaces.

This week, it released SurfaceWave, a software and hardware stack that works on glass, metal and plastic surfaces of smartphones.

CEO Jess Lee says the next iterations are going to be the kinds of materials that are used to make car dashboards and other interior surfaces you find inside the vehicle, including leather, thicker plastic and other materials. The company is already engaging with automotive companies, Lee told TechCrunch.

I can see a lot of possibilities for this in the human-driven vehicles of today. We’ve already seen how Tesla has changed how we think about infotainment systems in cars. And then there’s electric vehicle startup Byton, which plans to bring a vehicle to market with a touchscreen that extends along the entire dashboard.

The real opportunity for Sentons will be with autonomous vehicles, a product that will afford its passengers more leisure time.

— Ingrid Lunden

Made in China

the station china

Earlier this week, Tesla was given the OK to begin producing vehicles at its $2 billion factory in Shanghai. Tesla was added to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s list of approved automotive manufacturers.

Now we’ll watch and wait to see if production starts this month. Expect the topic of China and this factory to come up during Tesla’s earnings call with analysts October 23.

In other China factory news, we hear that electric vehicle startup Byton plans to host a splashy opening ceremony in early November for its new plant. The event will include lots of Chinese officials, company executives and maybe a preview of a near-final production version of its M-Byte vehicle.

Byton’s factory in Nanjing covers some 800,000 square meters (8.6 million square feet) funded with a total investment of more than $1.5 billion. Over the summer, the walls and roof went up, equipment was installed and commissioning began in five major workshops: stamping, welding, paint, battery and assembly.

The plant will begin trial production in late 2019.

This all sounds great, but there have been challenges, and the constant requirement for capital is one of them. Byton has delayed the launch of the production version of the M-Byte by two quarters. It’s now looking like commercial production will begin by the end of the second quarter of 2020.

Here are a couple of interesting tidbits for those manufacturing geeks out there:

  • The stamping shop completes one panel every 3 seconds on average. Byton claims it will be one of the fastest stamping production lines in China.
  • The welding shop incorporates 335 welding robots supplied by KUKA and boosts the automation rate to 99%, according to Byton.
  • The paint shop is equipped with a “3 Coating 2 Baking” system and thin film pre-treatment as well as the transverse “Eco-Incure” oven technology.
  • The battery shop will produce and assemble battery packs, designed independently by Byton. Battery maker CATL provides the battery cells and modules and aluminum maker Constellium supplies the aluminum battery tray.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share. A little bird is where we pass along insider tips and what we’re hearing or finding from reliable, informed sources in the industry. This isn’t a place for unfounded gossip.

To get a “little bird” and the rest of the newsletter, please subscribe. Just go to our newsletters page and click on The Station.

What does systems engineering in AVs mean?

the station autonomous vehicles1

I recently spoke to Randol Aikin, the head of systems engineering at self-driving trucks startup Ike Robotics, about the company’s approach, which is based on a methodology developed at MIT called Systems Theoretic Process Analysis. STPA is the foundation for Ike’s product development.

The company also released a wickedly long safety report (it’s halfway down that landing page in the link provided).

The complete interview was included in the emailed newsletter. Yet another reason to subscribe to this free newsletter. Here’s one quote from the interview with Aikin:

We asked the question, what do we have to prove to ourselves and demonstrate in order to be on a public road safely? It’s the same question that we’re going to have to answer for the product as well, which is, what do we need to prove to assure that we’re safe to operate without a human in the cab?

It’s one of the huge unproven hypotheses. Anybody in this space that doesn’t consider that to be a huge technical challenges is ignoring a really thorny and important question.

Who will own the future of transportation?

Our mobility coverage extends to Extra Crunch. Check out my latest article on who will own the future of transportation based on insights from Zoox CEO Aicha Evans and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The idea here is to explore some of the nuances of this loaded question.

Extra Crunch requires a paid subscription and you can sign up here.

 

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Volvo creates a dedicated business for autonomous industrial and commercial transport

By Darrell Etherington

Volvo Group has established a new dedicated business group focused on autonomous transportation, with a mandate that covers industry segments like mining, ports and moving goods between logistics hubs of all kinds. The vehicle maker has already been active in putting autonomous technology to work in these industries, with self-driving projects — including at a few quarries and mines, and in the busy port located at Gothenburg, Sweden.

The company sees demand for this kind of autonomous technology use growing, and decided to establish an entire business unit to address it. The newly formed group will be called Volvo Autonomous Solutions, and its official mission is to “accelerate the development, commercialization and sales of autonomous transport solutions,” focused on the kind of transportation “where there is a need to move large volumes of goods and material on pre-defined routes, in receptive flows.”

Their anticipation of the growth of this sector comes in part from direct customer feedback, the automaker notes. It’s seen “significant increase in inquires from customers,” according to a statement from Martin Lundstedt, Volvo Group’s president and CEO.

Officially, Volvo Autonomous Solutions won’t be a formal new business area under its parent company until January 2020, but the company is looking for a new head of the unit already, and it’s clear they see a lot of potential in this burgeoning market.

Unlike autonomous driving for consumer automobiles, this kind of self-driving for fixed-route goods transportation is a nice match to the capabilities of technology as they exist today. These industrial applications eliminate a lot of the chaos and complexity of driving in, say, urban environments and with a lot of other human-driven vehicles on the road, and their routes are predictable and repeatable.

MIT develops a way for robots to grasp and manipulate objects much faster

By Darrell Etherington

MIT Robot Gripper 0Picking stuff up seems easy, right? It is – for humans with powerful brain computers that instantly and intuitively figure out everything needed to get the job done. But for robots, even advanced robots, the compute required is surprisingly complex, especially if you want the robot to not, you know, break the thing it’s grabbing.

MIT has developed a new way to speed up the planning involved in a robot grasping an object, making it “significantly” faster – reducing the total time from as much as ten or more minutes, to under a second. That’s many orders of magnitude better, bringing it closer to the realm of human reaction and response time.

This could have big practical benefits to setting where robotics are already in use, including in industrial environments. The research team’s method involves having the robot push the object against a surface that doesn’t move, which allows it to shortcut a bunch of the decision-making process about how to manipulate it. That could be applied in picking and sorting applications, which is a common enough use for robots on factory floors and in warehouses.

MIT says this could even be used to improve robotic manipulation of “intricate tools,” and that it can be applied even in the case of simple robotic grippers, rather than just being useful for advanced, highly articulated robotic manipulators.

To prove the validity of its model, the team built an experiment in which a robot gripper held a t-shaped block and pushed it against a fixed, vertically oriented bar. The results mirrored what happened in their virtual models, with the robot being able to plan out control of the gripped block through a maneuver to place it upright on the tablet’s surface in less than a second, whereas it had taken over 500 seconds using traditional methods.

Traptic uses 3D vision and robotic arms to harvest ripe strawberries

By Brian Heater

At some unspecified time, somewhere down the road, Traptic would love to expand its robots to pick a wide variety of crops. For now, however, the South Bay-based team is focused solely on strawberries.

With roughly 88 percent of the fruit’s total U.S. yield occurring in California, the berries represent ample opportunity for disruption. A manual labor shortage exacerbated by tightening immigration policies has contributed to a good deal of waste. Farmers apparently lose around one-fifth of crops, due to a lack of hands.

Automation has, of course, been applied to a number of different staple crops. Things like wheat and corn are routinely harvested by machines — and have been for a long time. Strawberries and other fruits, on the other hand, present a unique challenge. They’re just too delicate for most machines, requiring instead the deft touch of human pickers.

Traptic Blog Photo 3

Traptic, one of the startups competing in this year’s Disrupt Battlefield, however, is tackling the issue head on with a purpose-built robot. Comprising an off-the-shelf robotic arm and custom gripper and software, the company’s device is for the function of helping to improve strawberry yields.

The arm is housed inside a space on a cart surround on five of six sides. The vision system utilizes 3D cameras and neural networks to spot strawberries and distinguish ripe from unripe. It’s capable of determining their position within a millimeter and then goes about plucking.

The custom gripper, however, is probably the most unique element on board. Sure, there are plenty of off-the-shelf grippers available to roboticists, but for the aforementioned reasons, Traptic needed one that was rigid enough to pluck the berries, but gentle enough to not smash a ripe one in the process.

What the company ultimately settled on was a gripper that was neither fully rigid, nor soft. The metal base of the claws is augmented by rubberized bands that have enough give to conform to the fruits’ irregular shapes, while holding them snuggly enough to remove them from the plant.

Traptic’s current machine is Ceres, a large enclosure towed behind a tractor. It’s currently being tested by growers in both Northern and Southern California — distinct climates that allow for year-round strawberry growing.

 

To start, at least, the company anticipates that the robot will augment, rather than replace, pickers. Ultimately, however, such a device could replace human workers in the field. Traptic is certainly working to make that a tempting proposition by leasing the machine (“harvesting-as-a-service”) at a per-pound rate similar to what is currently paid out to human workers. Between a growing population and a strained workforce, however, such a promise could still be a ways away.

Traptic also has its sights set on a number of other potential crops — oranges, melons and peppers are all currently on the list.

NASA awards $43.2M to Blue Origin, SpaceX and others for tech to take us to the Moon and Mars

By Darrell Etherington

NASA has announced the total funding it will distribute to the 14 companies it’s chosen to work with on developing key, innovative technologies that will be instrumental in helping get the agency to the Moon through the Artemis program, and potentially to Mars and beyond later on.

The U.S. space agency is awarding $43.2 million to the companies, in varying amounts ranging from $1.3 million to as much as $10 million (going to Blue Origin) for the most lucrative contract.

NASA announced in July a similar series of partnerships selected to further its Moon shot program, which also included SpaceX and Blue Origin. This new “Tipping Point” partnership program round includes Blue Origin, as mentioned, as well as SpaceX, OxEon Energy, Skyre, SpaceX, Infinity Fuel Cell and Hydrogen, Paragon Space, TallannQuest, Accion Systems, CU Aerospace, ExoTerra, Blue Canyon Technologies, Astrobotic Technology, Intuitive Machines and Luna Innovations.

It includes projects that range from developing autonomous navigation for satellites, better propulsion systems, rover tech, advanced spacecraft avionics, cryogenic propellant and more.

Blue Origin will be using its $10 million to develop a ground-based demonstration of liquefying hydrogen and oxygen, and storing the resulting liquid. This will demonstrate the viability of producing and storing liquid rocket propellant on the Moon, and will be a key step toward the development of a Moon-based propellant production plant.

Meanwhile, SpaceX will be working with NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama to build nozzles that will be used in spacecraft refueling operations. This tech will be crucial to SpaceX’s Starship, which Elon Musk said on Saturday will need to refuel ship-to-space tanker in orbit in order to load in enough propellant post Earth-based launch to make the rest of the trip to the Moon and Mars. NASA awarded SpaceX $3 million to support this project.

Astrobotic is working with Carnegie Mellon University with a $2 million investment from NASA in order to develop and build small rovers that can carry light payloads and work in tandem with large landers. These would act like advance scouts to work on researching and readying landing and base sites on the Moon. The concept illustration above depicts one of these proposed rover designs.

For the full list of projects, and the amount awarded to each, check out the official NASA announcement of the Tipping Point partnerships.

UPS gets FAA approval to operate an entire drone delivery airline

By Darrell Etherington

UPS announced today that it is the first to receive the official nod from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate a full “drone airline,” which will allow it to expand its current small drone delivery service pilots into a country-wide network.

In its announcement of the news, UPS said that it will start by building out its drone delivery solutions specific to hospital campuses nationwide in the U.S., and then to other industries outside of healthcare.

UPS racks up a number of firsts as a result of this milestone, thanks to how closely it has been working with the FAA throughout its development and testing process for drone deliveries. As soon as it was awarded the certification, it did a delivery for WakeMed hospital in Raleigh, N.C. using a Matternet drone, and it also became the first commercial operator to perform a drone delivery for an actual paying customer outside of line of sight thanks to an exemption it received from the government.

This certification, officially titled FAA’s “Part 135 Standard certification,” offers far-reaching and broad license to companies who attain it — much more freedom than any commercial drone operation has had previously in the U.S. Here’s a good summary of just how broad UPS can operate under its new designation:

The FAA’s Part 135 Standard certification has no limits on the size or scope of operations. It is the highest level of certification, one that no other company has attained. UPS Flight Forward’s certificate permits the company to fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operators in command. This enables UPS to scale its operations to meet customer demand. Part 135 Standard also permits the drone and cargo to exceed 55 pounds and fly at night, previous restrictions governing earlier UPS flights.

Obviously, it’s a huge win for UPS Flight Forward, which is the dedicated UPS subsidiary the company announced it had formed back in July to focus entirely on building out the company’s drone delivery business. But there’s still a lot left to do before you can expect UPS drones to be a regular fixture, or even at all visible in the lives of the average American.

The courier outlined its next steps from here, which include expanding service to new hospitals and medial facilities, building out ground-based detection and avoidance systems for its drone fleets, building a central operation control facility and partnering with new drone makers to create different kinds of delivery drones for different payloads.

Last year’s Gatwick drone attack involved at least two drones, say police

By Natasha Lomas

A major drone incident at the UK’s second business airport last year continues to baffle police.

Last December a series of drone sightings near Gatwick Airport caused chaos as scores of flights were grounded and thousands of travellers had their holiday plans disrupted.

The incident, which took place during a peak travel period ahead of Christmas, led to the airport being closed for 30 hours, disrupting 1,000 flights and more than 140,000 passengers.

Today Sussex Police have released an update on their multi-month investigation into who was operating the drones — with thin findings, saying they have “identified, researched and ruled out 96 people ‘of interest’”.

Although they are now sure that drones played a part in the disruption. The report confirms that at least two drones were involved. The police are also convinced the perpetrator or perpetrators had detailed knowledge of the airport.

“The police investigation has centred on 129 separate sightings of drone activity, 109 of these from credible witnesses used to working in a complex airport environment including a pilot, airport workers and airport police,” the force writes.

“Witness statements show activity happened in ‘groupings’ across the three days on 12 separate occasions, varying in length from between seven and 45 minutes. On six of these occasions, witnesses clearly saw two drones operating simultaneously.”

“The incident was not deemed terror-related and there is no evidence to suggest it was either state-sponsored, campaign or interest-group led. No further arrests have been made,” it adds.

The policing operation during the disruption and subsequent investigation has cost £790,000 so far.

Sussex Police is drawing a line under its investigation at this point, saying without new information coming to light “there are no further realistic lines of enquiry at this time”. 

The chaos caused by drones shutting Gatwick led to sharp criticism of the government which rushed through tighter restrictions on drone flights near airports.

Shortly after the Gatwick debacle drone maker DJI also updated its geofencing system across Europe.

A comprehensive UK drone bill — intended to beef up police powers to curb drone misuse, and which could contain policy on flight information notification systems — has remained stalled.

In a ‘future of drones’ report published at the start of this year ministers said they intended to bring the bill forward this year. But the government is fast running out of parliamentary time to do so.

It had already made provision to introduce mandatory drone registration.

From November 30 it will be a legal requirement for all UK drone operators to register, as well as for drone pilots to complete an online pilot competency test.

While Sussex Police have ruled out the Gatwick drone incident being related to a campaign or interest-group, earlier this month an environmental group attempted to shut down Heathrow using toy drones flown at head height in the legal restriction zone.

The Heathrow Pause protest action did not result in any disruption to flights. Police arrested a number of activists before and after they flew drones.

Aptiv and Hyundai form new joint venture focused on autonomous driving

By Darrell Etherington

Automaker Hyundai is forming a new joint venture with autonomous driving technology company Aptiv, with both parties taking a 50% ownership stake in the new company. The goal of the new venture will be to develop Level 4 and Level 5 production-ready self-driving systems intended for commercialization, with the goal of making those available to robotaxi and fleet operators, as well as other auto makers, by 2022.

The combined investment in the joint venture from both companies will total $4 billion in aggregate value (including the value of combined engineering services, R&D and IP) initially, according to Aptiv and Hyundai, and testing for their fully autonomous systems will begin in 2020 in pursuit of that 2022 commercialization target.

In terms of what each is bringing to the table, Aptiv will be delivering its autonomous driving tech, which it has been developing for many years — originally as part of global automotive industry supplier Delphi — as well as 700 employees working on AV tech. Hyundai Motor Group will provide a combined $1.6 billion in cash from across its subrands, vehicle engineering, R&D and access to its IP.

Heading up the new joint venture will be Karl Iagnemma, the president of Aptiv’s Autonomous Mobility group, and it’ll be headquartered in Boston and supported by additional technology centers in multiple locations in the U.S. and Asia.

Both companies have been demonstrating autonomous vehicle technologies for multiple years now, and Aptiv has been working with Lyft in Las Vegas on a public trial of autonomous robotaxi services since debuting the capabilities at CES in 2018. Aptiv’s Vegas pilot uses BMW 5 Series cars for its autonomous pickup fleet.

This joint venture should help them with bringing the technology to market with the scale of a global automaker, while Hyundai gains by being able to shore up its own work in self-driving with a partner that has invested in developing these solutions as a primary concern over many years.

Take cover, it’s a drone with a nail gun!

By Devin Coldewey

The FAA has warned against equipping your drone with weapons such as flamethrowers and handguns. But can a nail gun really be considered a weapon — that is, outside of Quake? Let’s hope not, because roboticists at the University of Michigan have made a roofing drone that uses that tool to autonomously nail shingles into place.

In a video shot in UM’s special drone testing habitat, the craft flies up, approaches its bit of roof, and gingerly applies the nail gun before backing off and doing it a couple more times.

It’s very much just a tech demonstration right now, with lots of room to improve. For one thing the drone doesn’t use onboard cameras, but rather a system of static cameras and markers nearby that can tell exactly where the drone is and where it needs to go.

This is simpler to start with, but eventually such a drone should be able to use its own vision system to find the point where to touch down. Compared with a lot of the computer vision tasks being accomplished out there, finding the corner of a roof tile is pretty tame.

Currently the drone is also free flying and uses an electric nail gun; This limits its flight time to about 10 minutes and a few dozen nails. It would be better for it to use a tether carrying power and air cables, so it could stay aloft indefinitely and use a more powerful pneumatic nail gun.

Drones are already used for lots of industrial applications, from inspecting buildings to planting trees, and this experiment shows one more area where they could be put to work. Roofing can be both dull and dangerous, and rote work like attaching shingles may as well be done by a drone overseen by an expert as by that expert’s own hands.

The drone is the subject of a paper (“Nailed it: Autonomous roofing with a nailgun-equipped octocopter”) by UM’s Matthew Romano and others, submitted for the International Conference on Robotics and Automation later this year.

Built Robotics raises $33M for its self-driving construction equipment

By Greg Kumparak

 

Built Robotics, a company aiming to make construction equipment autonomous, is announcing a $33M Series B round this morning.

With the construction industry facing a global labor shortage, Built’s aim is to allow one equipment operator to oversee a fleet of vehicles working autonomously in parallel, hopping in the cab only for tasks the machine can’t handle.

Rather than building its own vehicles, Built focuses on converting the popular construction equipment thats already out there. They sell a kit that straps to the top of things like excavators, bull dozers, and skid steers, taking tech like LIDAR, GPS, and WiFi and meshing them into the machine’s innards to give it autonomous smarts. They sell the conversion boxes to other companies, help them get installed, then charge a usage fee whenever the machines are in autonomous mode.

No one wants a 20-ton piece of machinery blasting around a construction site without a care for those around it, so the autonomous machines try to keep a constant eye on their surroundings. As I wrote back in April:

Cameras on and around the vehicles are constantly checking for anyone who might stray too close. If something goes wrong and the machine starts to tip too much, or if on-board sensors detect that something is in the way underground? Power gets cut. And there’s a big red emergency stop button on the back of each machine (and a wireless button meant to stay on the operator’s desk) for good measure.

We also took a look at some of Built’s gear a few months back:

The round is lead by Next47 (the investment arm of the European mega company Siemens), along with Building Ventures and previous investors Founders Fund, Presidio Ventures, Lemnos, and NEA. As part of the deal, Next47’s T.J. Rylander will be joining Built’s board of directors.

The company had previously disclosed a $15M Series A it raised in 2017, bringing its total funding up to $48M. Built co-founder Noah Ready-Campbell tells me that the company has roughly doubled in headcount over the past few months, with the team now sitting at roughly 40 people.

This prosthetic arm combines manual control with machine learning

By Devin Coldewey

Prosthetic limbs are getting better every year, but the strength and precision they gain doesn’t always translate to easier or more effective use, since amputees have only a basic level of control over them. One promising avenue being investigated by Swiss researchers is having an AI take over where manual control leaves off.

To visualize the problem, imagine a person with their arm amputated above the elbow controlling a smart prosthetic limb. With sensors placed on their remaining muscles and other signals, they may fairly easily be able to lift their arm and direct it to a position where they can grab an object on a table.

But what happens next? The many muscles and tendons that would have controlled the fingers are gone, and with them the ability to sense exactly how the user wants to flex or extend their artificial digits. If all the user can do is signal a generic “grip” or “release,” that loses a huge amount of what a hand is actually good for.

Here’s where researchers from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) take over. Being limited to telling the hand to grip or release isn’t a problem if the hand knows what to do next — sort of like how our natural hands “automatically” find the best grip for an object without our needing to think about it. Robotics researchers have been working on automatic detection of grip methods for a long time, and it’s a perfect match for this situation.

epfl roboarm

Prosthesis users train a machine learning model by having it observe their muscle signals while attempting various motions and grips as best they can without the actual hand to do it with. With that basic information the robotic hand knows what type of grasp it should be attempting, and by monitoring and maximizing the area of contact with the target object, the hand improvises the best grip for it in real time. It also provides drop resistance, being able to adjust its grip in less than half a second should it start to slip.

The result is that the object is grasped strongly but gently for as long as the user continues gripping it with, essentially, their will. When they’re done with the object, having taken a sip of coffee or moved a piece of fruit from a bowl to a plate, they “release” the object and the system senses this change in their muscles’ signals and does the same.

It’s reminiscent of another approach, by students in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, in which the arm is equipped with a camera in the palm that gives it feedback on the object and how it ought to grip it.

It’s all still very experimental, and done with a third-party robotic arm and not particularly optimized software. But this “shared control” technique is promising and could very well be foundational to the next generation of smart prostheses. The team’s paper is published in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence.

Ten questions for 2020 presidential candidate John Delaney

By Brian Heater

In November 2020, America will go to the polls to vote in perhaps the most consequential election in a generation. The winner will lead the country amid great social, economic and ecological unrest. The 2020 election will be a referendum on both the current White House and the direction of the country at large.

Nearly 20 years into the young century, technology has become a pervasive element in all of our lives, and will continue to only grow more important. Whoever takes the oath of office in January 2021 will have to answer some difficult questions, raging from an impending climate disaster to concerns about job loss at the hands of robotics and automation.

Many of these questions are overlooked in day to day coverage of candidates and during debates. In order to better address the issues, TechCrunch staff has compiled a 10-part questionnaire across a wide range of tech-centric topics. The questions have been sent to national candidates, regardless of party. We will be publishing the answers as we receive them. Candidates are not required to answer all 10 in order for us to publish, but we will be noting which answers have been left blank.

First up is former Congressman John Delaney. Prior to being elected to Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, Delaney co-founded and led healthcare loan service Health Care Financial Partners (HCFP) and  commercial lender CapitalSource. He was elected to Congress in 2013, beating out a 10-term Republican incumbent. Rumored to be running against Maryland governor Larry Hogan for a 2018 bid, Delaney instead announced plans to run for president in 2020.

1. Which initiatives will you prioritize to limit humankind’s impact on climate and avoid potential climate catastrophe?

My $4 trillion Climate Plan will enable us to reach the goal of net zero emissions by 2050, which the IPCC says is the necessary target to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The centerpiece of my plan is a carbon-fee-and-dividend that will put a price on carbon emissions and return the money to the American people through a dividend. My plan also includes increased federal funding for renewable energy research, advanced nuclear technologies, direct air capture, a new Climate Corps program, and the construction of the Carbon Throughway, which would transport captured carbon from all over the country to the Permian Basin for reuse and permanent sequestration.

2. What is your plan to increase black and Latinx startup founders’ access to funding?

As a former entrepreneur who started two companies that went on to be publicly traded, I am a firm believer in the importance of entrepreneurship. To ensure people from all backgrounds have the support they need to start a new business, I will create nonprofit banks to serve economically distressed communities, launch a new SBIC program to help provide access to capital to minority entrepreneurs, and create a grant program to fund business incubators and accelerators at HBCUs. Additionally, I pledge to appoint an Entrepreneurship Czar who will be responsible for promoting entrepreneurship-friendly policies at all levels of government and encouraging entrepreneurship in rural and urban communities that have been left behind by venture capital investment.

3. Why do you think low-income students are underrepresented in STEM fields and how do you think the government can help fix that problem?

I think a major part of the problem is that schools serving low-income communities don’t have the resources they need to provide a quality STEM education to every student. To fix that, I have an education plan that will increase investment in STEM education and use Title I funding to eliminate the $23 billion annual funding gap between predominantly white and predominantly black school districts. To encourage students to continue their education after they graduate from high school and ensure every student learns the skills they need, my plan also provides two years of free in-state tuition and fees at a public university, community college, or technical school to everyone who completes one year of my mandatory national service program.

4. Do you plan on backing and rolling out paper-only ballots or paper-verified election machines? With many stakeholders in the private sector and the government, how do you aim to coordinate and achieve that?

Making sure that our elections are secure is vital, and I think using voting machines that create a voter-verified paper record could improve security and increase voters’ confidence in the integrity of our elections. To address other facets of the election security issue, I have proposed creating a Department of Cybersecurity to help protect our election systems, and while in Congress I introduced election security legislation to ensure that election vendors are solely owned and controlled by American citizens.

5. What, if any, federal regulation should be enacted for autonomous vehicles?

I was proud to be the founder of the Congressional Artificial Intelligence Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers dedicated to understanding the impacts of advances in AI technology and educating other legislators so they have the knowledge they need to enact policies that ensure these innovations benefit Americans. We need to use the legislative process to have a real conversation involving experts and other stakeholders in order to develop a comprehensive set of regulations regarding autonomous vehicles, which should include standards that address data collection practices and other privacy issues as well as more fundamental questions about public safety.

6. How do you plan to achieve and maintain U.S. superiority in space, both in government programs and private industry?

Space exploration is tremendously important to me as a former Congressman from Maryland, the home of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, major space research centers at the University of Maryland, and many companies that develop crucial aerospace technologies. As president, I will support the NASA budget and will continue to encourage innovation in the private sector.

7. Increased capital in startups founded by American entrepreneurs is a net positive, but should the U.S. allow its businesses to be part-owned by foreign governments, particularly the government of Saudi Arabia?

I am concerned that joint ventures between U.S. businesses and foreign governments, including state-owned enterprises, could facilitate the theft of intellectual property, potentially allowing foreign governments to benefit from taxpayer-funded research. We need to put in place greater protections that defend American innovation from theft.

8. Will U.S.-China technology decoupling harm or benefit U.S. innovation and why?

In general, I am in favor of international technology cooperation but in the case of China, it engages in predatory economic behavior and disregards international rules. Intellectual property theft has become a big problem for American businesses as China allows its companies to steal IP through joint ventures. In theory, U.S.-China collaboration could advance technology and innovation but without proper IP and economic protections, U.S.-China joint ventures and partnerships can be detrimental to the U.S.

9. How large a threat does automation represent to American jobs? Do you have a plan to help train low-skilled workers and otherwise offset job loss?

Automation could lead to the disruption of up to 54 million American jobs if we aren’t prepared and we don’t have the right policies. To help American workers transition to the high-tech, high-skill future economy, I am calling for a national AI strategy that will support public/private AI partnerships, develop a social contract with the communities that are negatively impacted by technology and globalization, and create updated education and job training programs that will help students and those currently in the workforce learn the skills they need.

To help provide jobs to displaced workers and drive economic growth in communities that suffer negative effects from automation, I have proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that would create an infrastructure bank to facilitate state and local government investment, increase the Highway Trust Fund, create a Climate Infrastructure Fund, and create five new matching funds to support water infrastructure, school infrastructure, deferred maintenance projects, rural broadband, and infrastructure projects in disadvantaged communities in urban and rural areas. In addition, my proposed national service program will create new opportunities that allow young adults to learn new skills and gain valuable work experience. For example, my proposal includes a new national infrastructure apprenticeship program that will award a professional certificate proving mastery of particular skill sets for those who complete the program.

10. What steps will you take to restore net neutrality and assure internet users that their traffic and data are safe from manipulation by broadband providers?

I support the Save Net Neutrality Act to restore net neutrality, and I will appoint FCC commissioners who are committed to maintaining a fair and open internet. Additionally, I would work with Congress to update our digital privacy laws and regulations to protect consumers, especially children, from their data being collected without consent.

UK police arrest a number of climate activists planning Heathrow drone protest

By Natasha Lomas

U.K. police have arrested a number of environmental activists affiliated with a group which announced  last month that it would use drones to try to ground flights at the country’s busiest airport.

The group, which calls itself Heathrow Pause, is protesting against the government decision to green-light a third runway at the airport.

In a press release published today about an operation at Heathrow Airport, London’s Met Police said it has arrested nine people since yesterday in relation to the planned drone protest, which had been due to commence early this morning.

Heathrow Pause suggested it had up to 200 people willing to volunteer to fly toy drones a few feet off the ground within a 5km drone “no fly” zone around the airport — an act that would technically be in breach of U.K. laws on drone flights, although the group said it would only use small drones, flown at head height and not within flight paths. It also clearly communicated its intentions to the police and airport well in advance of the protest.

“Three women and six men aged between their 20s and the 60s have been arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance,” the Met Police said today.

“Four of the men and the three women were arrested yesterday, Thursday, 12 September, in Bethnal Green, Haringey and Wandsworth, in response to proposed plans for illegal drone use near Heathrow Airport.

“They were taken into custody at a London police station.”

The statement says a further two men were arrested this morning within the perimeter of Heathrow Airport on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance — though it’s not clear whether they are affiliated with Heathrow Pause.

Videos of confirmed members of the group being arrested by police prior to the planned Heathrow Pause action have been circulating on social media.

Roger Hallem , our brave drone pilot being arrested preemptively . We will not give up and we urge all right minded people to rise up with us . Don't sleep walk into oblivion . Protect your children as if their lives depended on it . It does @ExtinctionR @GretaThunberg pic.twitter.com/10gpVtVVEF

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 12, 2019

In an update on its Twitter feed this morning Heathrow Pause says there have been 10 arrests so far.

It also claims to have made one successful flight, and says two earlier drone flight attempts were thwarted by signal jamming technology.

More flights are planned today, it adds.

UPDATE: 3 attempted flights, at least one successful. 10 arrests so far. More flights planned today.

James, having completed his flight, is about to hand himself into police. Currently in Heathrow Terminal 2 Departures for interviews/photos.

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 13, 2019

Heathrow using signal jamming to frustrate early flights 💚🌲🌍🌲💚#HeathrowPause #ClimateBreakdown #ActNow https://t.co/F4b8NvcLj1

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 13, 2019

Thank you James Brown for your courage. @HeathrowAirport when will you adhere by your own rules and close the airport? https://t.co/fJFlLx2dGb

— Heathrow Pause (@HeathrowPause) September 13, 2019

A spokeswoman for Heathrow told us there has been no disruption to flights so far today.

In a statement the airport said: “Heathrow’s runways and taxiways remain open and fully operational despite attempts to disrupt the airport through the illegal use of drones in protest nearby. We will continue to work with the authorities to carry out dynamic risk assessment programmes and keep our passengers flying safely on their journeys today.”

“We agree with the need for climate change action but illegal protest activity designed with the intention of disrupting thousands of people, is not the answer. The answer to climate change is in constructive engagement and working together to address the issue, something that Heathrow remains strongly committed to do,” it added.

We’ve asked the airport to confirm whether signal jamming counter-drone technology is being used to try to prevent the protest.

The Met Police said a dispersal order under Section 34 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 has been implemented in the area surrounding Heathrow Airport today.

“It will be in place for approximately 48 hours, commencing at 04:30hrs on Friday, 13 September,” it writes. “The order has been implemented to prevent criminal activity which poses a significant safety and security risk to the airport.”

Voyage raises $31 million to bring driverless taxis to communities

By Kirsten Korosec

Voyage, the autonomous vehicle startup that spun out of Udacity, announced Thursday it has raised $31 million in a round led by Franklin Templeton.

Khosla Ventures, Jaguar Land Rover’s InMotion Ventures and Chevron Technology Ventures also participated in the round. The company, which operates a ride-hailing service in retirement communities using self-driving cars supported by human safety drivers, has raised a total of $52 million since launching in 2017. The new funding includes a $3 million convertible note.

Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron has big plans for the fresh injection of capital, including hiring and expanding its fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans, which always have a human safety driver behind the wheel.

Ultimately, the expanded G2 fleet and staff are just the means toward Cameron’s grander mission to turn Voyage into a truly driverless and profitable ride-hailing company.

“It’s not just about solving self-driving technology,” Cameron told TechCrunch in a recent interview, explaining that a cost-effective vehicle designed to be driverless is the essential piece required to make this a profitable business.

The company is in the midst of a hiring campaign that Cameron hopes will take its 55-person staff to more than 150 over the next year. Voyage has had some success attracting high-profile people to fill executive-level positions, including CTO Drew Gray, who previously worked at Uber ATG, Otto, Cruise and Tesla, as well as former NIO and Tesla employee Davide Bacchet as director of autonomy.

Funds will also be used to increase its fleet of second-generation self-driving cars (called G2) that are currently being used in a 4,000-resident retirement community in San Jose, Calif., as well as The Villages, a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in Florida. Voyage’s G2 fleet has 12 vehicles. Cameron didn’t provide details on how many vehicles it will add to its G2 fleet, only describing it as a “nice jump that will allow us to serve consumers.”

Voyage used the G2 vehicles to create a template of sorts for its eventual driverless vehicle. This driverless product — a term Cameron has used in a previous post on Medium — will initially be limited to 25 miles per hour, which is the driving speed within the two retirement communities in which Voyage currently tests and operates. The vehicle might operate at a low speed, but they are capable of handling complex traffic interactions, he wrote.

“It won’t be the most cost-effective vehicle ever made because the industry still is in its infancy, but it will be a huge, huge, huge improvement over our G2 vehicle in terms of being be able to scale out a commercial service and make money on each ride,” Cameron said. 

Voyage initially used modified Ford Fusion vehicles to test its autonomous vehicle technology, then introduced in July 2018 Chrysler Pacifica minivans, its second generation of autonomous vehicles. But the end goal has always been a driverless product.

Voyage engineers Alan Mond and Trung Dung Vu

TechCrunch previously reported that the company has partnered with an automaker to provide this next-generation vehicle that has been designed specifically for autonomous driving. Cameron wouldn’t name the automaker. The vehicle will be electric and it won’t be a retrofit like the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid vehicles Voyage currently uses or its first-generation vehicle, a Ford Fusion.

Most importantly, and a detail Cameron did share with TechCrunch, is that the vehicle it uses for its driverless service will have redundancies and safety-critical applications built into it.

Voyage also has deals in place with Enterprise rental cars and Intact insurance company to help it scale.

“You can imagine leasing is much more optimal than purchasing and owning vehicles on your balance sheet,” Cameron said. “We have those deals in place that will allow us to not only get the vehicle costs down, but other aspects of the vehicle into the right place as well.”

Simbe raises a $26M Series A for its retail inventory robot

By Brian Heater

San Francisco-based robotics startup Simbe just announced a $26 million Series A. The round was led by Venrock and features Future Shape, Valo Ventures and Activant Capital. The company is one of several looking to automate the process of providing retail inventory.

Simbe says the funding will go toward growing its headcount, exploring new markets and accelerating the deployment oof its existing robots. The news also finds Nest’s Tony Fadell, Venrock’s David Pakman and Pathbreaker Venture’s Ryan Gembala joining the startup’s board.

Simbe Data Analytics Corporate

“Our investors, both previous and new, provide much more than financial support. They are advocates and trusted advisors who bring invaluable institutional knowledge to all facets of our business,” cofounder and CEO Brad Bogolea said in a release. “Both our equity financing partners and the SoftBank Robotics team are deeply aligned with Simbe’s vision to revitalize physical retail through data. We are at a pivotal time of growth and value their support as we continue to transform retail at a global scale.”

Simbe has been showcasing its inventory robot Tally since 2015. Soon after Lemnos made an investment in the company. Earlier this year, U.S. supermarket chain Giant Eagle announced plans to begin a pilot program, deploying Tally in select stores. That announcement came a week or so after Walmart announced its own plan to pilot robots from Pittsburgh-based competitor, Bossa Nova.

Simbe Data Analytics Employee

Other retailers using Simbe robots include Schnuck Markets,Decathlon Sporting Goods and Groupe Casino. Along with the Series A, Softbank Robotics is also providing an inventory financing agreement to help scale manufacturing for the company.

Shopify buys warehouse automation tech developer 6 River Systems for $450 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Shopify, the shopping technology developer that’s quickly becoming the anti-Amazon, has taken another step up the sales supply chain with its $450 million acquisition of the warehouse automation and management technology developer, 6 River Systems.

The acquisition will serve to boost efficiencies among Shopify’s Fulfillment Network service, which launched in June.

The acquisition gives Shopify access to the robotics experts who helped develop Amazon’s own robotics business when they were at Kiva Systems (before Amazon acquired that company).

“Shopify is taking on fulfillment the same way we’ve approached other commerce challenges, by bringing together the best technology to help everyone compete,” said Tobi Lütke, CEO of Shopify, in a statement. “With 6 River Systems, we will bring technology and operational efficiencies to companies of all sizes around the world.”

The deal, which was approved by 6 Rivers’ investors, including Menlo Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners and Eclipse Partners, was a mix of cash and stock totaling $450 million, with around $69 million worth of Shopify Class A shares set aside for 6 River Systems’ employees and founders that will vest subject to certain conditions.

Shopify said in a statement that the transaction would have no material effect on the company’s revenue in 2018. It’s expected to increase the company’s expenses by $25 million — including $10 million in operating expenses, $8 million in amortization of intangible assets, and $7 million in stock-based compensation.

Shopify estimated that 6 River Systems will have annual revenues of roughly $30 million in 2020.

Reach Robotics is closing up shop

By Greg Kumparak

Reach Robotics, the company behind the spider-like MekaMon robot you might’ve seen on the shelves at the Apple Store, is closing down.

Billed as the “world’s first gaming robot”, MekaMon is part video game, part STEM tool. You could plop it down on the carpet and point your phone at it to battle virtual augmented reality enemies, face off against other MekaMon owners in multiplayer battles, or build custom programs for the robot on top of Apple’s Swift Playgrounds.

Here’s a video we did on Reach Robotics a few years back:

Reach Robotics was founded in 2013. They released their MekaMon robot in November of 2017, just a few months after raising a $7.5M Series A.

News of the shutdown comes from Reach Robotics co-founder Silas Adekunle on LinkedIn (as first noted by The Robot Report) where he writes:

The consumer robotics sector is an inherently challenging space – especially for a start-up. Over the past six years, we have taken on this challenge with consistent passion and ingenuity. From the first trials of development to accelerators and funding rounds, we have fought to bring MekaMon to life and into the hands of the next generation of tech pioneers.

Unfortunately, for Reach Robotics, in its current form at least, today marks the end of that journey.

It doesn’t sound like Adekunle is finished with robotics altogether though. In a public Instagram post, he notes that while “Reach Robotics is closing down today due to tough business circumstances” he is “looking forward to sharing some exciting new ventures in the Robotics space in Europe and Education in Africa and the Middle East.”

Co-founder John Rees, meanwhile, writes on LinkedIn:

I’m still taking stock of it all but the short version is that it is true what they say – that “hardware is hard” and consumer hardware is even harder due to the reliance on the Christmas sales period.

2019 has been a fairly brutal year for consumer robotics. In March, Jibo, a social robot meant to be cheery and entertaining, personally delivered the news of its impending shutdown to owners with an oh-so-depressing shutdown speech:

The servers for Jibo the social robot are apparently shutting down. Multiple owners report that Jibo himself has been delivering the news: "Maybe someday when robots are way more advanced than today, and everyone has them in their homes, you can tell yours that I said hello." pic.twitter.com/Sns3xAV33h

— Dylan Martin (@DylanLJMartin) March 2, 2019

“Maybe someday, when robots are way more advanced than today, and everyone has them in their homes,” said the robot, “you can tell them I said hello.”

Anki, creator of self-driving RC cars and the WallE-like robot buddy Cozmo, shut down in April.

Starship Technologies CEO Lex Bayer on focus and opportunity in autonomous delivery

By Darrell Etherington

Starship Technologies is fresh off a recent $40 million funding round, and the robotics startup finds itself in a much-changed market compared to when it got its start in 2014. Founded by software industry veterans, including Skype and Rdio co-founder Janus Friis, Starship’s focus is entirely on building and commercializing fleets of autonomous sidewalk delivery robots.

Starship invented this category when it debuted, but five years later it’s one of a number of companies looking to deploy what essentially amounts to wheeled, self-driven coolers that can carry small packages and everyday freight, including fresh food, to waiting customers. CEO Lex Bayer, a former sales leader from Airbnb, took over the top spot at Starship last year and is eager to focus the company’s efforts in a drive to take full advantage of its technology and experience lead.

The result is transforming what looked, to all external observers, like a long-tail technology play into a thriving commercial enterprise.

“We want to do 100 universities in the next 24 months, and we’ll do about 25 to 50 robots on each campus,” Bayer said in an interview about his company’s plans for the future.

Bear Robotics is raising big bucks for robots that deliver food to restaurant patrons

By Connie Loizos

Some days, it feels like there’s almost no end to the number of jobs that might be replaced altogether or in some part by smart machines, from radiologists to truck drivers to, gulp, journalists. You might be tempted to sob about it to your friendly restaurant server, but wait! It’s a robot, too!

So it may be if the 25-person, Redwood City, Calif.,-based startup Bear Robotics has its way. The two-year-old company makes “robots that help,” and specifically, it makes robots that help deliver food to restaurant customers.

It’s a market that’s seemingly poised for disruption. As Bear says in its own literature about the company, it was founded to address the “increased pressure faced by the food service industry around wages, labor supply, and cost efficiencies.”

CEO John Ha, a former Intel research scientist turned longtime technical lead at Google who also opened, then closed, his own restaurant, witnessed the struggle firsthand. As the child (and grandchild) of restaurateurs, this editor can also attest that owning and operating restaurants is a tricky proposition, given the expenses and — even more plaguing oftentimes — the turnover that goes with it.

Investors are apparently on board with the idea with robot servers. According to a new SEC filing, Bear has so far locked down at least $10.2 million from a dozen investors on its way to closing a $35.8 million round. That’s not a huge sum for many startups today, but it’s notable for a food service robot startup, one whose first model, “Penny,” spins around R2-D2-like, gliding between the kitchen and dining tables with customers’ food as it is prepared.

At least, this is what will theoretically happen once Bear begins lining up restaurants that will pay the company via a monthly subscription that includes the robot, setup and mapping of the restaurant (so Penny doesn’t collide with things), along with technical support.

In the meantime, Bear’s backers, which the startup has yet to reveal, may be taking a cue in part from Alibaba, which last year opened a highly automated restaurant in Shanghai where small robots slide down tracks to deliver patrons’ meals.

They may also be looking at the bigger picture, wherein everything inside restaurants is getting automated — from robotic chefs that fry up ingredients to table-mounted self-pay tablets — with servers one of the last pieces of the puzzle to be addressed.

That doesn’t mean Bear or other like-minded startups will take off any time soon in restaurants that aren’t offering a futuristic experience. One of the reasons that people have always headed to restaurants is for good-old human interaction. In fact, with take-out ordering on the rise, people — waiters, bartenders, restaurant owners who flit around the dining room to say hello — may prove one of the only reasons that customers show up at all.

Volocopter’s 2X eVTOL records a first with flight at Helsinki International Airport

By Darrell Etherington

The Volocopter 2X air taxi vehicle is now the first electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) craft to fly at an international airport, fully integrated into the same airspace as other commercial passenger craft. It performed this key milestone flight at Helsinki International Airport, in a demonstration mission that showed it successfully integrated with both traditional air traffic management, and air traffic management systems designed specifically for aircraft with no pilot on board controlling the vehicle manually.

The test is intended to show that air traffic management systems which are designed for both traditional piloted flight and autonomous aircraft, including air robotaxis, can operate in concert with one another, even in areas with dense sky traffic – including over cities in future.

Volocopter, which recently unveiled a new version of its eVTOL which it intends to be the version that goes into commercial service once it launches for paying customers, ran tests at Helsinki airport along with AirMap, Altitude Angel and Unifly, all providers of air traffic management services for unpiloted aerial craft. Through the test, they determined that the Volocopter systems work well with each provider, which is a key step towards gaining certification for commercial flight.

The German startup will be flying its 2X vehicle at an event in Stuttgart on September 14, but its next major milestone will be unveiling the new VoloCity commercial craft and its prototype VoloPort take-off and landing facility in Singapore later this year.

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