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Today — September 19th 2019Your RSS feeds

James Cameron, Victor Vescovo, and the Saga of the Deepest* Solo Dive Ever

By Matt Simon
Vescovo says he dove deeper than Cameron. Cameron says not so fast. Perhaps only Poseidon knows for sure.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

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.”

Loot boxes in games are gambling and should be banned for kids, say UK MPs

By Natasha Lomas

UK MPs have called for the government to regulate the games industry’s use of loot boxes under current gambling legislation — urging a blanket ban on the sale of loot boxes to players who are children.

Kids should instead be able to earn in-game credits to unlock look boxes, MPs have suggested in a recommendation that won’t be music to the games industry’s ears.

Loot boxes refer to virtual items in games that can be bought with real-world money and do not reveal their contents in advance. The MPs argue the mechanic should be considered games of chance played for money’s worth and regulated by the UK Gambling Act.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) parliamentary committee makes the recommendations in a report published today following an enquiry into immersive and addictive technologies that saw it take evidence from a number of tech companies including Fortnite maker Epic Games; Facebook-owned Instagram; and Snapchap.

The committee said it found representatives from the games industry to be “wilfully obtuse” in answering questions about typical patterns of play — data the report emphasizes is necessary for proper understanding of how players are engaging with games — as well as calling out some games and social media company representatives for demonstrating “a lack of honesty and transparency”, leading it to question what the companies have to hide.

“The potential harms outlined in this report can be considered the direct result of the way in which the ‘attention economy’ is driven by the objective of maximising user engagement,” the committee writes in a summary of the report which it says explores “how data-rich immersive technologies are driven by business models that combine people’s data with design practices to have powerful psychological effects”.

As well as trying to pry information about of games companies, MPs also took evidence from gamers during the course of the enquiry.

In one instance the committee heard that a gamer spent up to £1,000 per year on loot box mechanics in Electronic Arts’s Fifa series.

A member of the public also reported that their adult son had built up debts of more than £50,000 through spending on microtransactions in online game RuneScape. The maker of that game, Jagex, told the committee that players “can potentially spend up to £1,000 a week or £5,000 a month”.

In addition to calling for gambling law to be applied to the industry’s lucrative loot box mechanic, the report calls on games makers to face up to responsibilities to protect players from potential harms, saying research into possible negative psychosocial harms has been hampered by the industry’s unwillingness to share play data.

“Data on how long people play games for is essential to understand what normal and healthy — and, conversely, abnormal and potentially unhealthy — engagement with gaming looks like. Games companies collect this information for their own marketing and design purposes; however, in evidence to us, representatives from the games industry were wilfully obtuse in answering our questions about typical patterns of play,” it writes.

“Although the vast majority of people who play games find it a positive experience, the minority who struggle to maintain control over how much they are playing experience serious consequences for them and their loved ones. At present, the games industry has not sufficiently accepted responsibility for either understanding or preventing this harm. Moreover, both policy-making and potential industry interventions are being hindered by a lack of robust evidence, which in part stems from companies’ unwillingness to share data about patterns of play.”

The report recommends the government require games makers share aggregated player data with researchers, with the committee calling for a new regulator to oversee a levy on the industry to fund independent academic research — including into ‘Gaming disorder‘, an addictive condition formally designated by the World Health Organization — and to ensure that “the relevant data is made available from the industry to enable it to be effective”.

“Social media platforms and online games makers are locked in a relentless battle to capture ever more of people’s attention, time and money. Their business models are built on this, but it’s time for them to be more responsible in dealing with the harms these technologies can cause for some users,” said DCMS committee chair, Damian Collins, in a statement.

“Loot boxes are particularly lucrative for games companies but come at a high cost, particularly for problem gamblers, while exposing children to potential harm. Buying a loot box is playing a game of chance and it is high time the gambling laws caught up. We challenge the Government to explain why loot boxes should be exempt from the Gambling Act.

“Gaming contributes to a global industry that generates billions in revenue. It is unacceptable that some companies with millions of users and children among them should be so ill-equipped to talk to us about the potential harm of their products. Gaming disorder based on excessive and addictive game play has been recognised by the World Health Organisation. It’s time for games companies to use the huge quantities of data they gather about their players, to do more to proactively identify vulnerable gamers.”

The committee wants independent research to inform the development of a behavioural design code of practice for online services. “This should be developed within an adequate timeframe to inform the future online harms regulator’s work around ‘designed addiction’ and ‘excessive screen time’,” it writes, citing the government’s plan for a new Internet regulator for online harms.

MPs are also concerned about the lack of robust age verification to keep children off age-restricted platforms and games.

The report identifies inconsistencies in the games industry’s ‘age-ratings’ stemming from self-regulation around the distribution of games (such as online games not being subject to a legally enforceable age-rating system, meaning voluntary ratings are used instead).

“Games companies should not assume that the responsibility to enforce age-ratings applies exclusively to the main delivery platforms: All companies and platforms that are making games available online should uphold the highest standards of enforcing age-ratings,” the committee writes on that.

“Both games companies and the social media platforms need to establish effective age verification tools. They currently do not exist on any of the major platforms which rely on self-certification from children and adults,” Collins adds.

During the enquiry it emerged that the UK government is working with tech companies including Snap to try to devise a centralized system for age verification for online platforms.

A section of the report on Effective Age Verification cites testimony from deputy information commissioner Steve Wood raising concerns about any move towards “wide-spread age verification [by] collecting hard identifiers from people, like scans of passports”.

Wood instead pointed the committee towards technological alternatives, such as age estimation, which he said uses “algorithms running behind the scenes using different types of data linked to the self-declaration of the age to work out whether this person is the age they say they are when they are on the platform”.

Snapchat’s Will Scougal also told the committee that its platform is able to monitor user signals to ensure users are the appropriate age — by tracking behavior and activity; location; and connections between users to flag a user as potentially underage. 

The report also makes a recommendation on deepfake content, with the committee saying that malicious creation and distribution of deepfake videos should be regarded as harmful content.

“The release of content like this could try to influence the outcome of elections and undermine people’s public reputation,” it warns. “Social media platforms should have clear policies in place for the removal of deepfakes. In the UK, the Government should include action against deepfakes as part of the duty of care social media companies should exercise in the interests of their users, as set out in the Online Harms White Paper.”

“Social media firms need to take action against known deepfake films, particularly when they have been designed to distort the appearance of people in an attempt to maliciously damage their public reputation, as was seen with the recent film of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi,” adds Collins.

Elon Musk promises to take Tesla Model S to ‘Plaid’ with new powertrain

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla CEO Elon Musk promised a more powerful powertrain option in future Model S, Model X and the next-generation Roadster sports car that will push acceleration and speed beyond the current high bar known as Ludicrous mode.

Musk tweeted Wednesday evening “the only thing beyond Ludicrous is Plaid,” a teaser to a higher performing vehicle and a nod to the movie Spaceballs.

The only thing beyond Ludicrous is Plaid

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 12, 2019

 

These new higher performing versions of the Model S, Model X, and Roadster will contain what Musk describes as a Plaid powertrain and is still about a year away from production. This new powertrain will have three motors, one more than the dual motor system found in today’s Model S and X.

Yes. To be clear, Plaid powertrain is about a year away from production & applies to S,X & Roadster, but not 3 or Y. Will cost more than our current offerings, but less than competitors.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 12, 2019

This Plaid powertrain has already seen some action. Tesla revealed Wednesday that a Model S equipped with a Plaid powertrain and chassis prototype had lapped Laguna Seca racetrack in 1:36:555, a second faster than the record for a four-door sedan.

*~ Some personal news ~*

We lapped Laguna Seca @WeatherTechRcwy in 1:36.555 during advanced R&D testing of our Model S Plaid powertrain and chassis prototype

(That’s a second faster than the record for a four-door sedan) pic.twitter.com/OriccK4KCZ

— Tesla (@Tesla) September 12, 2019

 

The “Plaid” powertrain will not be offered in the lower cost Model 3 or Model Y, which isn’t expected to go into production until late 2020. Musk also promised that this plaid powertrain will cost more than “current offerings, but will be less than competitors” without explaining what that means.

Cclose followers of the automaker might recall hints of a three motor powertrain in the past.

When Tesla unveiled a new Roadster prototype in November 2017, Musk said it would have three motors and be able to travel a whopping 0 to 60 miles per hour in 1.9 seconds and a top speed of 250 mph or even more. The Roadster isn’t expected to go into production until 2020.

What is new are Tesla’s plans to make this more powerful three-motor powertrain available in the Model S and Model X. And it stands to be an important option, if it does in fact materialize. The Model S has been around since 2012 and since the introduction the cheaper Model 3, sales have dipped.

And yet, Musk has said the X and S won’t be getting a major refresh. If Tesla hopes to maintain demand for either of its higher margin luxury vehicles, new trims like this plaid powertrain will be essential.

Tesla first announced Ludicrous mode in its Model S vehicles way back in July 2015. As shareholders and customers awaited the Model X to arrive, Musk unveiled several options for the company’s Model S sedan, including a lower priced version, longer battery range and “Ludicrous mode” for even faster acceleration.

Ludicrous mode, which improved acceleration by 10% to let drivers go from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds, came about as a result of an improved battery fuse. This new fuse, Musk explained in a blog post at the time, has its own electronics and a tiny lithium-ion battery that monitors current and protects against excessive current.

Tesla also upgraded the main pack contactor with a high-temperature space-grade superalloy instead of steel. This enabled the battery pack to remain “springy” under the heat of heavy current. In the end, the max pack output increased from 1300 to 1500 Amps.

Ludicrous was a $10,000 add on for new buyers. Tesla did reduce the price for existing Model S P85 owners for the first six months following the announcement and sold them the pack electronics upgrade needed for Ludicrous Mode for $5,000.

Musk joked in this 2015 blog post that there is “one speed faster than ludicrous, but that is reserved for the next generation Roadster in 4 years: maximum plaid.”

These brothers just raised $15 million for their startup, Dutchie, a kind of Shopify for cannabis dispensaries

By Connie Loizos

Ross Lipson comes from an entrepreneurial family, so perhaps it’s no wonder that as a college student, he dropped out of school to jump into the online food space, including co-founding, then selling, one of Canada’s first online food ordering service startups.

It’s even less surprising that having gone through that experience, Lipson would use what he learned in the service of another startup: Dutchie, a two-year-old, 36-person, Bend, Ore.-based startup whose software is used by a growing number of cannabis dispensaries that pay the startup a monthly subscription fee to create and maintain their websites, as well as to accept orders and track what needs to be ready for pickup.

The decision is looking like a smart one right now. Dutchie says it’s now being used by 450 dispensaries across 18 states and that it’s seeing $140 million in gross merchandise volume. The company also just locked down $15 million in Series A funding led by Gron Ventures, a new cannabis-focused venture fund with at least $117 million to invest. Other participants in the round include earlier backers Casa Verde Capital, Thirty Five Ventures (founded by NBA star Kevin Durant and sports agent Rich Kleiman), Sinai Ventures and individual investors, including Shutterstock founder and CEO Jon Oringer.

Altogether, Dutchie (named after the song), has now raised $18 million. We talked earlier today with Lipson about the company, its challenges and working with his big brother Zach, himself a serial entrepreneur who co-founded Dutchie and today serves as its chief product officer while Ross serves as CEO.

TC: It’s always interesting when siblings team up. Did you always get along with your brother?

RL: We complement each other strongly. I’m energy, I’m sales and business development. I’m fast-moving by nature and the guy who wants to drive the car as fast as possible. Zach is the one who wants to make sure that we’re doing everything right. He’s the methodical one. We really do understand each other quite well and appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses, which enables us to meet in the middle on a lot of things.

TC: It’s also interesting that you’ve both been founders beginning around the time you were in college. Were your parents entrepreneurs?

RL: Our father is a founder and has run his own business for the last 35 years. Our parents also always pitched us that anything is possible and encouraged us to go for it. He was the dreamer and our mom was the cheerleader, which is a pretty nice combination.

TC: You started Dutchie a couple of years ago. Is running this startup more or less challenging than your experience in the food delivery business?

RL: It’s our second year in business, and we’ve seen some explosive, unprecedented growth. As for whether it’s harder or easier than food, we’re very product and user-centric, and by that we mean consumers but also dispensaries. We’re focused on the customer all day, every day, with a team that ensures that they have support, that they receive their orders, that the orders are out the door quickly or at least, ready for pickup. We make sure the photos work, that different potencies are marked. Our system is kind of like a Shopify of the cannabis space maybe meets DoorDash.

TC: You don’t deliver, though.

RL: No. We don’t do delivery for legal reasons; the dispensaries [handle this piece].

TC: You’re charging like other software-as-service businesses. Do you also take a cut of each sale?

RL: We don’t charge on transaction volume.

TC: You’re working with 450 dispensaries. Is there any way to know what percentage of the overall market that is, and how much is left for you to chase after?

RL: First, there are more than 30 states where cannabis is either medically legal or that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana and we operate in both types of markets. It’s hard to know the actual count [of dispensaries], because they are always being formed, getting acquired or going out of business, but counting registered dispensaries, we work with more than 15% of them right now.

TC: Who are your biggest competitors? Eaze? Leafly? They also help consumers find cannabis and, in Eaze’s case, deliver it, too.

RL: Eaze is more focused on delivery where we’re more focused on pickup. It’s also only available in California and Oregon, whereas we’re in 18 states. They educate the consumer about online ordering, which is great, but they also own the consumer experience, where we’re really powering the dispensary.

Leafly and Weedmaps are really different types of platforms; they’re mostly known for their dispensary and strain reviews, where we’re strictly an online ordering service.

TC: You’ve raised a big Series A for a company in the cannabis space. Do you have concerns about there being later-stage funding available when you need it?

RL: It’s true the most investors still haven’t touched cannabis, though you are seeing bigger deals. Thrive Capital led that [$35 million] round in [the online cannabis inventory and ordering platform] LeafLink [last month]. You saw Tiger Global [lead a $17 million round ] in [the software platform for cannabis dispensaries] Green Bits last summer. It’s a big advantage to the funds that can right now invest because there are these barriers to entry; they’re finding deals that are promising and they can get in early and without competition.

Pictured, left to right, above: Ross and Zach Lipson

Uber commits $200 million to Uber Freight expansion in bet on trucking and Chicago

By Kirsten Korosec

Uber Freight is establishing its headquarters in Chicago as part of Uber’s broader plan to invest more than $200 million annually in the region, including hiring hundreds of workers.

Uber said Monday it will hire 2,000 new employees in the region over the next three years; most will be dedicated to Uber Freight .

Uber Freight, which helps truck drivers connect with shipping companies, has become an important piece to Uber’s larger business strategy to generate revenue from all forms of transportation, including logistics for packages. The announcement comes on the heels of a disappointing quarter for Uber that included a stunning $5.2 billion loss.

Since launching in May 2017, Uber Freight has grown from from limited regional operations in Texas to the rest of the continental U.S. and to Europe.

Uber made Uber Freight a separate business unit in August 2018. Since then, the company has redesigned the app, adding new navigation features that make searching for and filtering loads easier to customize and more intuitive, as well as other features, including an updated map view and a search bar across the top of the screen.

It has also made some key hires, one of which intimated the company’s global ambitions. The company hired Andrew Smith, one of Box’s early employees, to head up global sales at Uber Freight, and Bar Ifrach, formerly of Airbnb, to lead its marketplace team.

With signs of some success, Uber is doubling down on the trucking business.

Uber Freight has more than 400,000 drivers in its carrier network and 1,000-plus shippers as customers, including AB Inbev, Niagara Bottling and Land O’Lakes, according to the company. Uber Freight also has more than 50,000 carriers on the platform.

“I believe this makes Uber Freight  the biggest virtual fleet in the United States,” Lior Ron, head of Uber Freight, told TechCrunch in a recent interview.

The company has been relatively quiet as it has scaled up, Ron said, noting that this announcement marks a turning point for Uber Freight.

“This is really a graduation moment for us and where we can share that because the business is doing so well we are doubling down on our investment,” he said.

The new Uber office located in The Old Main Post Office in the historic Chicago River area will serve as Uber Freight headquarters and its first engineering hub outside of San Francisco.

“Trucking represents an enormous opportunity for Uber, and this milestone is a testament to our long-term commitment to our Freight business,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in a statement. “Chicago is the heart of America’s transportation and logistics industry, and there is no better place to open our dedicated Freight HQ. Uber has long recognized the incredible history, innovation, and talent that Chicago has to offer, and we’re excited about the thousands of new jobs our Freight business will help bring as we become one of the city’s largest technology employers.”

As part of its new investments in the region, Uber is collaborating with the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership (CCWP) to help with workplace diversity. Uber will start onboarding new employees in 2020 and will work with CCWP to develop a process for identifying potential candidates through their system.

The Rock That Vibrates in Time With Earth, Wind, and Waves

By Jennifer Ouellette, Ars Technica
How vulnerable are landmark stone formations to tremors from earthquakes or human activities?

The EPA Says Methane Rules Are Bad for Industry—It's Wrong

By Eric Niiler
Drones and satellites make it easy to detect and plug methane leaks, benefitting oil and gas companies and the environment alike.

Capitalism Burns the Amazon, Lawsuits Burn YouTube, and More News

By Alex Baker-Whitcomb
Catch up on the most important news from today in two minutes or less.

Behold the Firenado's Twisting, Infernal Column of Flames

By Robbie Gonzalez
Call them fire tornadoes or fire whirls, these spinning conflagrations can tear roofs off houses and spread flames unpredictably. Here's how they work.

Flint, Newark, and the Persistent Crisis of Lead in Water

By Molly Enking
The contaminated water in Flint and Newark is not unusual, and some experts think they know where the next "next Flint" will be.

Big Ag Is Sabotaging Progress on Climate Change

By Timothy A. Wise
Opinion: Grim as the UN’s latest climate report is, it doesn’t confront the dangerous, government-hijacking power of agribusiness.

India’s FreshToHome raises $20M to grow its fish, meat, vegetable and milk e-commerce platform

By Manish Singh

FreshToHome, a Bangalore-based e-commerce startup that sells fresh vegetable, fish, chicken and other kinds of meat, has raised $20 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand its footprint in the nation.

The Series B round for the startup was led by Iron Pillar, with Joe Hirao, the founder of Japan’s ZIGExn also participating in it. The startup, which closed its $11 million Series A financing round three months ago, has raised $33 million to date.

FreshToHome sells “100 percent” pure and fresh vegetables and meat in Bangalore, Mumbai, and Pune — the latter two of which it recently entered. It says it does not add any preservative or other chemicals to prolong the lives of the produce. (Typical meat sold by a retail store is riddled with chemicals and could be months old.)

Unlike most other marketplaces, FreshToHome has built its own supply chain network, which gives it better control over quality and delivery of the food items. It uses trains and planes to move inventory, and has become one of the biggest clients of several local airlines.

The startup sources vegetables and fish directly from 1500 fishermen and farmers across 125 coasts in the nation. It uses an app to negotiate with farmers and fishermen.

It continues to expand its control over all aspects of its business. “Today a large part of our poultry comes from institutional farmers. Now we are going a step ahead and processing the chicken at the slaughtering level ourselves,” Shan Kadavil, CEO of FreshToHome, told TechCrunch in an interview.

FreshToHome is able to deliver the perishables on the same day and as soon as up to two hours, Kadavil said.

The startup also began operations in UAE recently and has opened physical stores in Bangalore and Chennai.

FreshToHome has amassed 650,000 customers — up from 400,000 in late May — in 10 cities in India and recently started to sell milk in Bangalore, another market segment that remains largely unstructured in the nation. Every day it receives 14,000 orders, and processes 20 tons of fresh food.

It recently crossed $30 million in annualized direct to consumer sales, which makes it the largest e-commerce platform serving this category. It is seeing 30% month-to-month growth, said Kadavil, who has previously managed tech support for Support, and India operations for gaming firm Zynga.

And that growth has helped the startup attract some attention. Several major players in the nation, including Amazon India that recently expanded to include perishable category and Flipkart, have held talks with FreshToHome to acquire some stake in the startup, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

And there is a big opportunity in the space. The cold-chain market of India is estimated to grow to $37 billion in next five years.

In addition to directly procuring its supplies from farmers and fishermen, FreshToHome also serves as a micro-VC, giving them access to some money upfront and resources to produce more from their farms. It also gives them an assurance that it will buy back their produce.

Kadavil founded FreshToHome with Mathew Joseph, a veteran in the industry who has dealt with fish export for more than 30 years. Joseph started India’s first e-commerce venture in fish and meat called SeaToHome in 2012.

FreshToHome will use the fresh capital to expand its network of contract farmers, and add 200 to 300 tons of additional produce each month.

In a prepared statement, Anand Prasanna, Managing Partner of Iron Pillar, for which it is the first investment in food-tech space, said, “FreshToHome’s brand proposition has been to provide 100% fresh food with 0% chemicals — not an easy thing to achieve in India at a large scale. By smartly using big data and machine learning, they have created a sustainable supply chain, which offers a fair price to consumers, fishermen and farmers, for their premium produce… We love companies that solve such hard issues in large market segments in India through unique tech enabled moats!”

Why the Amazon’s On Fire, a Robocall Fight, and More News

By Alex Baker-Whitcomb
Catch up on the most important news from today in two minutes or less.

Humans, More Than Drought, Are Fueling the Amazon's Flames

By Eric Niiler
Economic activity appears to be causing the rainforest to burn, unlike the other epic fires ravaging the world.

FAA threatens $25,000 fine for weaponizing drones

By Devin Coldewey

It’s perfectly natural for a red-blooded American to, once they have procured their first real drone, experiment with attaching a flame thrower to it. But it turns out that this harmless hobby is frowned upon by the biggest buzzkills in the world… the feds.

Yes, the FAA has gone and published a notice that drones and weapons are “A Dangerous Mix.” Well, that’s arguable. But they’re the authority here, so we have to hear them out.

“Perhaps you’ve seen online photos and videos of drones with attached guns, bombs, fireworks, flamethrowers, and other dangerous items. Do not consider attaching any items such as these to a drone because operating a drone with such an item may result in significant harm to a person and to your bank account.”

They’re not joking around with the fines, either. You could be hit with one as big as $25,000 for violating the FAA rules. Especially if you put your attack drone on YouTube.

That’s the ThrowFlame TF-19, by the way. TechCrunch in no way recommends or endorses this extremely awesome device.

Of course, you may consider yourself an exception — perhaps you are a defense contractor working on hunter-killers, or a filmmaker who has to simulate a nightmare drone-dominated future. Or maybe you just promise to be extra careful.

If so, you can apply to the FAA through the proper channels to receive authorization for your drone-weaponizing operation. Of course, as with all other victimless crimes, if no one sees it, did a crime really occur? The FAA would no doubt say yes, absolutely, no question. So yeah, probably you shouldn’t do that.

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The 2020 Chevy Bolt EV now has a 259-mile range thanks to some cell chemistry tinkering

By Kirsten Korosec

The 2020 Chevy Bolt EV now has 259 miles of range, a 9% increase from previous year models of the electric hatchback, according to the EPA.

To get there, the company focused on cell chemistry, not the battery pack. The GM brand did not add more battery cells or change the battery pack or the way it is integrated into the vehicle structure, a spokesperson confirmed.

Instead, Chevrolet’s battery engineering team made what the company described as “impactful changes to the cell chemistry.” The changes to the cell chemistry allowed the team to improve the energy of the cell electrodes, and ultimately enabled them to squeeze more range out of the battery.

The increase pushes the 2020 Chevy Bolt ahead of the Kia Niro and the standard range plus variant of the Tesla Model 3, with 239 and 240 miles of range, respectively. Other versions of the Model 3, the long-range and performance, have a much longer 310-mile range. It’s also just one mile better than the 258-mile range Hyundai Kona EV. Nissan Leaf Plus, the laggard in the group, can travel 226 miles on a single charge.

That might not seem like much. But in this small, yet growing pool of electric vehicle models, jumping from 238 to 259 miles could help Chevrolet sell more Bolt EVs next year. It could also cannibalize sales this year.

The electric vehicle has never been a top seller for the GM brand, particularly compared to its top-selling SUVs and trucks. It has beat out some of its other Chevy models and sales are high enough for the company to stick with the compact hatchback for now.

GM delivered 23,297 Chevy Bolt EVs in 2017, the first model year of the electric vehicle. But the following year, deliveries fell 22%, to 18,019. Sales have rebounded in the first half of the year.

The 2020 model year, which will be offered in two new exterior colors, is expected to arrive in dealerships later this year. The base price of the electric vehicle is $37,495, which includes destination and freight charges. Tax, title, license and dealer fees are excluded.

Frontier technologies are moving closer to the center of venture investment

By Jonathan Shieber

As the technologies that were once considered science fiction become the purview of science, the venture capital firms that were once investing at the industry’s fringes are now finding themselves at the heart of the technology industry.

Investing in the commercialization of technologies like genetic engineering, quantum computing, digital avatars, augmented reality, new human-computer interfaces, machine learning, autonomous vehicles, robots, and space travel that were once considered “frontier” investments are now front-and-center priorities for many venture capital firms and the limited partners that back them.

Earlier this month, Lux Capital raised $1.1 billion across two funds that invest in just these kinds of companies. “[Limited partners] are now more interested in frontier tech than ever before,” said Bilal Zuberi, a partner with the firm.

He sees a few factors encouraging limited partners (the investors who provide financing for venture capital funds) to invest in the firms that are financing companies developing technologies that were once considered outside of the mainstream.

Mobile gaming is a $68.5 billion global business, and investors are buying in

By Jonathan Shieber
Omer Kaplan Contributor
Omer Kaplan is CMO and co-founder at ironSource.

By the end of 2019, the global gaming market is estimated to be worth $152 billion, with 45% of that, $68.5 billion, coming directly from mobile games. With this tremendous growth (10.2% YoY to be precise) has come a flurry of investments and acquisitions, everyone wanting a cut of the pie. In fact, over the last 18 months, the global gaming industry has seen $9.6 billion in investments and if investments continue at this current pace, the amount of investment generated in 2018-19 will be higher than the 8 previous years combined.

What’s interesting is why everyone is talking about games and who in the market is responding to this and how.

The gaming phenomenon

Today, mobile games account for 33% of all app downloads, 74% of consumer spend, and 10% of all time spent in-app. It’s predicted that in 2019, 2.4 billion people will play mobile games around the world – that’s almost one third of the global population. In fact, 50% of mobile app users play games, making this app category as popular as music apps like Spotify and Apple Music and second only to social media and communications apps in terms of time spent.

In the US, time spent on mobile devices has also officially outpaced that of television – with users spending 8 more minutes per day on their mobile devices. By 2021, this number is predicted to increase to over 30 minutes. Apps are the new primetime and games have grabbed the lion’s share.

Accessibility is the highest it’s ever been as barriers to entry are virtually non-existent. From casual games to the recent rise of the wildly popular hyper-casual genre of games which are quick to download, easy to play, and lend themselves to being played in short sessions throughout the day, games are played by almost every demographic stratum of society. Today, the average age of a mobile gamer is 36.3 (compared with 27.7 in 2014), the gender split is 51% female, 49% male, and one-third of all gamers are between the ages of 36-50. A far cry from the traditional stereotype of a ‘gamer’.

With these demographic, geographic, and consumption sea-changes in the mobile ecosystem and entertainment landscape, it’s no surprise that the game space is getting increased attention and investment, not just from within the industry, but more recently from traditional financial markets and even governments. Let’s look at how the markets have responded to the rise of gaming.

Image courtesy of David Maung/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Games on games

The first substantial investments in mobile gaming came from those who already had a stake in the industry. Tencent invested $90M in Pocket Gems and$126M in Glu Mobile (for a 14.6% stake), gaming powerhouse Supercell invested $5M in mobile game studio Redemption Games, Boom Fantasy raised $2M from ESPN and the MLB and Gamelynx raised $1.2M from several investors – one of which was Riot Games. Most recently, Ubisoft acquired a 70% stake in Green Panda Games to bolster its foot in the hyper-casual gaming market.

Additionally, bigger gaming studios began to acquire smaller ones. Zynga bought Gram Games, Ubisoft acquired Ketchapp, Niantic purchased Seismic Games, and Tencent bought Supercell (as well as a 40% stake in Epic Games). And the list goes on.

Wall Street wakes up

Beyond the flurry of investments and acquisitions from within the game industry, games are also generating huge amounts of revenue. Since launch, Pokemon Go has generated $2.3B in revenue and Fortnite has amassed some 250M players. This is catching the attention of more traditional financial institutions, like private equity firms and VCs, who are now looking at a variety of investment options in gaming – not just of gaming studios, but all those who had a stake in or support the industry.

In May 2018, hyper-casual mobile gaming studio Voodoo announced a $200M investment from Goldman Sachs’ private equity investment arm. For the first time ever, a mobile gaming studio attracted the attention of a venerable old financial institution. The explosion of the hyper-casual genre and the scale its titles are capable of achieving, together with the intensely iterative, data-driven business model afforded by the low production costs of games like this, were catching the attention of investors outside of the gaming world, looking for the next big growth opportunity.

The trend continued. In July 2018, private equity firm KKR bought a $400M minority stake in AppLovin and now, exactly one year later Blackstone announced their plan to acquire mobile ad-network Vungle for a reported $750M. Not only is money going into gaming studios, but investments are being made into companies whose technology supports the mobile gaming space. Traditional investors are finally taking notice of the mobile gaming ecosystem as a whole and the explosive growth it has produced in recent years. This year alone mobile games are expected to generate $55B in revenue so this new wave of investment interest should really come as no surprise.

A woman holds up her cell phone as she plays the Pokemon Go game in Lafayette Park in front of the White House in Washington, DC, July 12, 2016. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Government intervention

Most recently, governments are realizing the potential and reach of the gaming industry and making their own investment moves. We’re seeing governments establish funds that support local gaming businesses – providing incentives for gaming studios to develop and retain their creatives, technology, and employees locally – as well as programs that aim to attract foreign talent.

As uncertainty looms in England surrounding Brexit, France has jumped on the opportunity with “Join the Game”. They’re painting France as an international hub that is already home to many successful gaming studios, and they’re offering tax breaks and plenty of funding options – for everything from R&D to the production of community events. Their website even has an entire page dedicated to “getting settled in France”, in English, with a step-by-step guide on how game developers should prepare for their arrival.

The UK Department for International Trade used this year’s Game Developers Conference as a backdrop for the promotion of their games fund – calling the UK “one of the most flourishing game developing ecosystems in the world.” The UK Games Fund allows for both local and foreign-owned gaming companies with a presence in the UK to apply for tax breaks. And ever since France announced their fund, more and more people have begun encouraging the British government to expand their program saying that the UK gaming ecosystem should be “retained and enhanced”. But, not only does the government take gaming seriously, the Queen does as well. In 2008, David Darling the CEO of hyper-casual game studio Kwalee was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to the games industry. CBE is the third-highest honor the Queen can bestow on a British citizen.

Over to Germany, and the government has allocated €50M of its 2019 budget for the creation of a games fund. In Sweden, the Sweden Game Arena is a public-private partnership that helps students develop games using government-funded offices and equipment. It also links students and startups with established companies and investors. While these numbers dwarf the investment of more commercial or financial players, the sudden uptick in interest governments are paying to the game space indicate just how exciting and lucrative gaming has become.

Support is coming from all levels

The evolution of investment in the gaming space is indicative of the stratospheric growth, massive revenue, strong user engagement, and extensive demographic and geographic reach of mobile gaming. With the global games industry projected to be worth a quarter of a trillion dollars by 2023, it comes as no surprise that the diverse players globally have finally realized its true potential and have embraced the gaming ecosystem as a whole.

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