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Alphabet’s Wing begins making first commercial drone deliveries in the US

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet -owned drone delivery spin-out Wing is starting to service U.S. customers, after becoming the first drone delivery company to get the federal go-ahead to do so earlier this year. Wing is working with FedEx Express and Walgreens on this pilot, and their first customers are Michael and Kelly Collver, who will get a “cough and cold pack,” which includes Tylenol, cough drops, facial tissues, Emergen-C and bottled water (do people who have colds need bottled water?).

The Collvers are receiving their package in Christianburg, Va., which is where Wing and Walgreens will run this inaugural pilot of the drone delivery service. Walgreens gets a noteworthy credit in the bargain, becoming the first U.S. retailer to do a store-to-customer doorstep delivery via drone, while FedEx will be the first logistics provider to deliver an e-commerce drone delivery with a separate shipment.

Wing is also working with Virginia’s Sugar Magnolia, a retailer local to the state, and that part of the equation is focused on proving out how Wing and drone delivery can service last-mile e-commerce customers at their homes. Sugar Magnolia customers can get small items, including chocolates and paper goods, delivered directly to them via drone through the new pilot.

Wing drone delivery 3

Wing was able to do this with a new Air Carrier Certificate from the FAA that clears it for expanded service, specifically allowing Wing’s pilots to manage multiple aircraft flying without any human pilot on board at the same time, while providing service to the public.

It’s a big milestone when it comes to U.S.-based drone delivery, and another sign that people should get ready for these services to start to be a more regular fixture. Earlier this month, UPS also secured FAA approval to operate a commercial drone delivery service, so the trials will probably come fast and furious at this point — though widespread service is probably still quite a ways off as both regulators and operators look to learn from their first limited deployments.

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.

GoPro teases next-generation action camera announcement for October 1

By Darrell Etherington

GoPro’s successor to the Hero 7 is likely coming on October 1, as the action camera maker has posted a teaser with the date to its official website. The tagline “This is Action” appears over a fast cut mash-up of variety of shots, including off-road racing, underwater diving and what looks like close-up footage of Frank Zapata (or someone else with a jetpack) flying around, along with the date.

The mostly shadowed image above is the closest we get to an official product shot, but we’ve seen leaks sourced from photo-focused rumor site Photo Rumors that suggest a redesign with added expandability options for advanced accessories including front-facing display monitors and external flash. These leaks also include some potential specs, like a new GP2 chip to help with on-board image stabilization, better lenses and image quality, and a new 12MP sensor, in addition to the new optional housing and accessories.

this is action gopro

GoPro’s Hero 7 introduced HyperSmooth stabilization, which provides gimbal-like results without the actual gimbal thanks to advanced digital stabilization technology that GoPro developed in-house. But the company also saw the introduction of its strongest-yet competitor in the market this year with the DJI Osmo Action, a GoPro-like action camera from drone and gimbal-maker DJI, which is at least on par with the Hero 7 in terms of stabilization and quality, with added features aimed at the vlogging market like a built-in front-facing display.

The slogan “This is Action.” could actually be interpreted as a dig against its newest rival, since Action is capitalized and the DJI camera is literally named the “Osmo Action.” Hopefully GoPro does indeed get a little spicy about its competitor, since it’s a market that could definitely stand to benefit from some genuine competition in the higher end of the category.

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.”

UPS takes minority stake in self-driving truck startup TuSimple

By Kirsten Korosec

UPS said Thursday it has taken a minority stake in self-driving truck startup TuSimple just months after the two companies began testing the use of autonomous trucks in Arizona.

The size of minority investment, which was made by the company’s venture arm UPS Ventures, was not disclosed. The investment and the testing comes as UPS looks for new ways to remain competitive, cut costs and boost its bottom line.

TuSimple, which launched in 2015 and has operations in San Diego and Tucson, Arizona, believes it can deliver. The startup says it can cut average purchased transportation costs by 30%.

TuSimple, which is backed by Nvidia, ZP Capital and Sina Corp., is working on a “full-stack solution,” a wonky industry term that means developing and bringing together all of the technological pieces required for autonomous driving. TuSimple is developing a Level 4 system, a designation by the SAE that means the vehicle takes over all of the driving in certain conditions.

An important piece of TuSimple’s approach is its camera-centric perception solution. TuSimple’s camera-based system has a vision range of 1,000 meters, the company says.

The days of when highways will be filled with autonomous trucks are years away. But UPS believes it’s worth jumping in at an early stage to take advantage of some of the automated driving such as advanced braking technology that TuSimple can offer today.

“UPS is committed to developing and deploying technologies that enable us to operate our global logistics network more efficiently,” Scott Price, chief strategy officer at UPS said in a statement. “While fully autonomous, driverless vehicles still have development and regulatory work ahead, we are excited by the advances in braking and other technologies that companies like TuSimple are mastering. All of these technologies offer significant safety and other benefits that will be realized long before the full vision of autonomous vehicles is brought to fruition — and UPS will be there, as a leader implementing these new technologies in our fleet.”

UPS initially tapped TuSimple to help it better understand how Level 4 autonomous trucking might function within its network. That relationship expanded in May when the companies began using self-driving tractor trailers to carry freight on a freight route between Tucson and Phoenix to test if service and efficiency in the UPS network can be improved. This testing is ongoing. All of TuSimple’s self-driving trucks operating in the U.S. have a safety driver and an engineer in the cab.

TuSimple and UPS monitor all aspects of these trips, including safety data, transport time and the distance and time the trucks travel autonomously, the companies said Thursday.

UPS isn’t the only company that TuSimple is hauling freight for as part of its testing. TuSimple has said its hauling loads for for several customers in Arizona.  The startup has a post-money valuation of $1.095 billion (aka unicorn status).

DJI aims for the best first-person drone experience with new goggles, controller and more

By Darrell Etherington

New gear from DJI will equip you with everything you need to become the best first-person drone racer that’s ever graced the Earth — you’ll be the Anakin Skywalker of FPV drone racers. The company is launching a new suite of products specifically to make the most of Digital First Person Viewing (FPV) when operating drones, with a wide range of compatibility.

The DJI Digital FPV Ecosystem includes a set of FPV goggles, a transmission unit that you attach to your drone of choice, a camera that also attaches to the transmitter unit and the drone body and an FPV controller. Together, they provide the “first low latency HD video transmission signal,” according to DJI, with total end-to-end latency of just 28 milliseconds, per the specs, and the ability to transmit 720p footage at 120fps with that low-lag transmission.

There are a few key ingredients here that are tuned specifically to the needs of drone racers: low latency is important because you want the video feed to be as real-time as possible when you’re racing high-speed drones around courses with tight turns and a field of airborne competitors you can potentially run into. And high-quality speed, with a high refresh rate for the video, is important for similar reasons — you need to “see” accurately from the perspective of the drone in order to race it effectively.

The system can also transmit at a distance of up to 2.5 miles, and there are eight channels of 5.8GHz wireless frequency supported by the Air Unit so you can fly as many as eight drones at the same time connected to a single system. Users can even change feeds on the fly when multiple units are in use, letting them take a look at the competition or just watch the race from an FPV perspective if they don’t actually have a drone in the running.

As for the camera, it offers a 150-degree field of view, and while the feed is optimized for action at 720p 120fps as mentioned, you can export video at either 1080p 60 or 720p 120 depending on your editing needs. The live video transmission also optimizes by first pixelating around the edges and keeping the center clear when it needs to increase broadcast efficiency under heavy load and in sub-optimal connection conditions, so that the important part of the action remains in focus for racers.

DJI will be selling these in two packages, including a “Fly More Combo” that retails for $929 and an “Experience Combo” that will be $819, with the main difference being that you get the remote controller in the mix with the “‘Fly More” version.

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