All posts in “Gadgets”

OffGridBox raises $1.6M to charge and hydrate rural Africa with its all-in-one installations

The simplest needs are often the most vital: power and clean water will get you a long way. But in rural areas of developing countries they can both be hard to come by. OffGridBox is attempting to provide both, sustainably and profitably, while meeting humanitarian and ecological goals at the same time. The company just raised $1.6 million to pursue its lofty agenda.

The idea is fairly simple, though naturally rather difficult to engineer: Use solar power to provide both electricity (in the form of charged batteries) and potable water to a small community. It’s not easy, and it’s not autonomous — but that’s by design.

I met two of the OffGridBox crew, founder and CEO Emiliano Cecchini and U.S. director Troy Billett, much earlier this year at CES in Las Vegas, where they were being honored by Not Impossible, alongside the brilliant BecDot braille learning toy. The team had a lot of irons in the fire, but now are ready to announce their seed round and progress in deploying what could be a life-saving innovation.

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They’ve installed 38 boxes so far, some at their own expense and others with the help of backers. Each is about the size of a small shed — a section of a shipping container, with a scaffold on top to attach the solar cells. Inside are the necessary components for storing electricity and distributing it to dozens of rechargeable batteries and lights at a time, plus a water reservoir and purifier.

Water from a nearby unsafe natural (or municipal, really) source is trucked or piped in and replenishes the reservoir. The solar cells run the purifier, providing clean water for cheap — around a third of what a family would normally pay, by the team’s estimate — and potentially with a much shorter trek. Simultaneously, charged batteries and lights are rented out at similarly low rates to people otherwise without electricity. Each box can generate as much as 12 kWh per day, which is split between the two tasks.

The alternatives for these communities would generally be small dedicated solar installations, the upfront cost of which can be unrealistic for them. The average household spend for electricity, Billett told me, is around 43 cents per day; OffGridBox will be offering it for less than half that, about 18 cents.

It doesn’t run itself: The box is administrated by a local merchant, who handles payments and communication with OffGridBox itself. Young women are targeted for this role, as there they are more likely to be long-term residents of the area and members of the community. The box acts as a small business for them, essentially drawing money out of the air.

OffGridBox works with local nonprofits to find likely candidates; the women pictured above were recommended by Women for Women. They in turn will support others who, for example, deliver or resell the water or run side businesses that rely on the electricity provided. There’s even an associated local bottled water brand now — “Amaziyateke,” named after a big leaf that collects rainwater, but in Rwanda is also slang for a beautiful woman.

Some boxes are being set up to offer Wi-Fi as well via a cellular or satellite connection, which has its own obvious benefits. And recently people have been asking for the ability to play music at home, so the company started including portable speakers. This was unexpected but an easy demand to meet, said Billett — “It is critical to listen!”

The company does do some work to keep the tech running efficiently and safely, remotely monitoring for problems and scheduling maintenance calls. So these things aren’t just set down and forgotten. That said, they can and have run for hundreds of thousands of hours — years — without major work being done.

Each box costs about $15K to build, plus roughly another $10K to deliver and install. The business model has an investor or investors cover this initial cost, then receive a share of the revenue for the life of the box. At capacity usage this might take around two years, after which the revenue split shifts (from 80/20 favoring investors to 50/50) and it’s a small, safe source of income for years to come. At around $10K of revenue per year per box with full utilization, the IRR is estimated at 15 percent.

What OffGridBox believes is that this model is better than any other for quick deployment of these boxes. Grants are an option, of course, and they can also be brought in for disaster relief purposes. Originally the idea was to sell these to rich folks who wanted to live off the grid or have a more self-sufficient mountain cabin, but this is definitely better — for a lot of reasons. (You could probably still get one for yourself if you really wanted.)

OffGridBox has been through the Techstars accelerator as part of a 2017 group, and worked through 2018, as I mentioned earlier, to secure funding from a variety of sources. This seed round totaling $1.6M was led by the Doen and Good Energies Foundations; the Banque Populaire du Rwanda is also a partner.

Along with a series A planned for 2019, this money will support the deployment of a total of 42 box installations in Rwandan communities.

“This will help us become a major player in the energy and water markets in Rwanda while empowering women entrepreneurs, fighting biocontamination for improved health, and introducing lighting in rural homes,” said Ceccini in the press release announcing the funding.

Alternative or complementary sources of power, such as wind, are being looked into, and desalination of water (as opposed to just sterilization) is being actively researched. This would increase the range and reliability of the boxes, naturally, and make island communities much more realistic.

Those 42 boxes are just the beginning: the company hopes to deploy as many as a thousand throughout Rwanda, and even then that would only reach a fifth of the country’s off-grid market. By partnering with local energy concerns and banks, OffGridBox hopes to deploy as many as a hundred boxes a year, potentially bringing water and power to as many as a hundred thousand more people.

Virgin Galactic touches the edge of space with Mach 2.9 test flight of SpaceShipTwo

The fourth test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo took its test pilots to the very edge of space this morning, reaching just over 52 miles of altitude and a maximum speed of Mach 2.9. It’s another exciting leapfrog of the aspiring space tourism company’s previous achievements.

Takeoff was at 7:30 AM against a lovely sunrise in the Mojave:

The actual spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, was strapped to the belly of WhiteKnightTwo (VSS Unity and VMS Eve specifically) as the latter gave it a ride up to about 45,000 feet.

At that point SpaceShipTwo ignited its rocket engine and started zooming upwards at increasing speed. The 60-second burn of the engine, 18 seconds longer than the third test flight’s, took the craft up to Mach 2.9 — quite a bit faster than before.

After that minute-long burn SpaceShipTwo deployed its “feathers,” helping slow and guide it to a controlled re-entry. It had at this point reached 271,268 feet, approximately 51.4 miles or 82.7 kilometers.

Now, space “officially” begins by international consensus at 100 km, at what’s called the Karman line. But space-like conditions begin well before that, and a planned altitude of around 80 km was good enough for NASA to load a set of microgravity experiments onto the craft. And some have suggested the line should be 80 km instead. So while it’s debatable whether Virgin Galactic truly went to space (the company is saying so), it definitely got close enough to get a taste.

And the pilots, Mark ‘forger’ Stucky and CJ Sturckow, are definitely astronauts.

If this flight isn’t the one that makes Virgin Galactic the first to get to space without a national space organization’s help, chances are the next one will be. I’m awaiting more images from the flight and will update this post with them as soon as they’re available.

Amazon is officially stocking Google Chromecasts yet again

There’s been a break in the multi-year feud between Google and Amazon, apparently, as Amazon is now – once again – selling Google Chromecast devices on its site. The devices were banned from Amazon back in 2015, when the retailer then decided that only devices supporting Prime Video would be allowed. A year ago, it said it was assorting Chromecast but that didn’t hold up. Instead, the two companies entered into another feud – this time, over Amazon’s implementation of a YouTube player on its Echo Show.

But now, things seem to be cooling down again.

As first spotted by Android Police, Chomecasts are back for sale on Amazon.com.

Specifically, the $35 third-generation Chromecast and the $69 Chromecast Ultra are available, the report found.

Amazon declined to offer a public statement on the matter, but TechCrunch has confirmed that the Amazon assortment officially includes these two devices – that is, their listings are not a fluke or a mistake.

Of course this leaves some Chromecast users hopeful that Google has chosen to support Prime Video – especially since that’s the reason why Amazon finally allowed the Apple TV back on its site last year, after those two companies buried their own hatchet. That’s not the case as of today, however.

It’s a shame that Amazon and Google haven’t been able to play nice, as its consumers who suffer as a result.

Not only was it impossible for Amazon shoppers to find one of the most popular streamers on the market, Chromecast’s lack of Prime Video means that Fire TV also lacks Google’s YouTube TV. Access to these streaming services are a major selling point for media players, and likely a key reason why the more agnostic platform Roku has fared so well.

Tempow’s new Bluetooth profile lets you create AirPods clones more easily

French startup Tempow has been working on software solutions to improve the Bluetooth protocol. The company just unveiled the Tempow True Wireless Bluetooth profile so that anybody can create AirPods clones.

Many companies have tried creating a pair of earbuds with absolutely no wire. But none of them are as good as Apple’s AirPods. Manufacturers can’t quite recreate the same experience because Apple has developed its own chip and software solution.

Putting aside the magical Bluetooth pairing process, AirPods leverage normal Bluetooth audio (A2DP) to communicate with your device. That’s why they work with iPhones, Android phones, old Windows laptops, etc.

But A2DP normally only lets you connect one device with one headphone. And that’s also what’s happening with AirPods. Your phone establishes a link with one of the earbuds. The second earbud then sniffs the first link.

Other manufacturers have tried to create wireless earbuds by establishing a second connection between the second earbud and the main earbud. They often use Near Field Magnetic Induction. This uses a lot of battery and creates latency issues.

Tempow has been rewriting the Bluetooth stack so that manufacturers can use normal Bluetooth chipsets and pair a single device with multiple speakers. Using this solution for wireless earbuds seems like a natural fit.

The best tech of 2018

People often forget the iPhone was not a runaway success. Neither was the iPod. And neither was the MacBook.

It wasn’t until a couple of years of iterations that all of those devices evolved into the class-leading products they are today.

So it was perhaps unfair for people to declare the Apple Watch a failure when it launched in 2015. Sure, Apple was really slow out of the gate in defining what the smartwatch’s real purpose was.

But with each new model, the Apple Watch has become more focused and more purposeful. It’s still a tiny smartphone on your wrist — more than ever now that some models offer built-in LTE connectivity — but new versions of watchOS have made it clear Apple sees the device as a health companion of sorts.

Apple Watch Series 4 builds on the top-notch fitness-tracking and heart-monitoring features found on Series 3 and earlier with even more advanced health-monitoring functions.

New features like the ECG app, irregular heart rhythm notifications, and fall detection challenge the Apple Watch’s utility as a wrist-worn computer and steer it closer towards being a powerful medical device.

Apple Watch Series 4 is by no means a replacement for a doctor. Rather, it’s a companion that encourages you to be more conscious of your health. Its small-but-powerful sensors are there to quantify what’s happening with your heart and body so you can take action (if needed) sooner rather than later.

There are tons of imitation Apple Watches and companies like Fitbit and Samsung are trying all kinds of ways to make their smartwatches different, but none of them come close to the kind of health-monitoring capabilities the Apple Watch Series 4 offers.

The Apple Watch has matured a great deal over the last three years, and on Series 4, Apple seems to finally understand what its essence is. Series 4 is a huge step forward for the smartwatch and further widens its lead.

Price: Starting at $399 (40mm) and $429 (44mm)