All posts in “Gadgets”

SpaceX reveals more Starlink info after launch of first 60 satellites

Last night’s successful Starlink launch was a big one for SpaceX — its heaviest payload ever, weighed down by 60 communications satellites that will eventually be part of a single constellation providing internet to the globe. That’s the plan, anyway — and the company pulled the curtain back a bit more after launch, revealing a few more details about the birds it just put in the air.

SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk have been extremely tight-lipped about the Starlink satellites, only dropping a few hints here and there before the launch. We know, for instance, that each satellite weighs about 500 pounds, and are a flat-panel design that maximized the amount that can fit in each payload. The launch media kit also described a “Startracker” navigation system that would allow the satellites to locate themselves and orbital debris with precision.

At the fresh new Starlink website, however, a few new details have appeared, alongside some images that provide the clearest look yet (renders, not photographs, but still) of the satellites that will soon number thousands in our skies.

In the CG representation of how the satellites will work, you get a general sense of it:

Thousands of satellites will move along their orbits simultaneously, each beaming internet to and from the surface in a given area. It’s still not clear exactly how big an area each satellite will cover, or how much redundancy will be required. But the image gives you the general idea.

The signal comes from and goes to a set of four “phased array” radio antennas. This compact, flat type of antenna can transmit in multiple directions and frequencies without moving like you see big radar dishes do. There are costs as well, but it’s a no-brainer for satellites that need to be small and only need to transmit in one general direction — down.

There’s only a single solar array, which unfolds upwards like a map (and looks pretty much like you’d expect — hence no image here). The merits of having only one are mainly related to simplicity and cost — having two gives you more power and redundancy if one fails. But if you’re going to make a few thousand of these things and replace them every couple years, it probably doesn’t matter too much. Solar arrays are reliable standard parts now.

The krypton-powered ion thruster sounds like science fiction, but ion thrusters have actually been around for decades. They use a charge difference to shoot ions — charged molecules — out in a specific direction, imparting force in the opposite direction. Kind of like a tiny electric pea shooter that, in microgravity, pushes the person back with the momentum of the pea.

To do this it needs propellant — usually xenon, which has several (rather difficult to explain) properties that make it useful for these purposes. Krypton is the next Noble gas up the list in the table, and is similar in some ways but easier to get. Again, if you’re deploying thousands of ion engines — so far only a handful have actually flown — you want to minimize costs and exotic materials.

Lastly there is the Star Tracker and collision avoidance system. This isn’t very well explained by SpaceX, so we can only surmise based on what we see. The star tracker tells each satellite its attitude, or orientation in space — presumably by looking at the stars and comparing that with known variables like time of day on Earth and so on. This ties in with collision avoidance, which uses the government’s database of known space debris and can adjust course to avoid it.

How? The image on the Starlink site shows four discs at perpendicular orientations. This suggests they’re reaction wheels, which store kinetic energy and can be spun up or slowed down to impart that force on the craft, turning it as desired. Very clever little devices actually and quite common in satellites. These would control the attitude and the thruster would give a little impulse, and the debris is avoided. The satellite can return to normal orbit shortly thereafter.

We still don’t know a lot about the Starlink system. For instance, what do its ground stations look like? Unlike Ubiquitilink, you can’t receive a Starlink signal directly on your phone. So you’ll need a receiver, which Musk has said in the past is about the size of a pizza box. But small, large, or extra large? Where can it be mounted, and how much does it cost?

The questions of interconnection are also a mystery. Say a Starlink user wants to visit a website hosted in Croatia. Does the signal go up to Starlink, between satellites, and down to the nearest base station? Does it go down at a big interconnect point on the backbone serving that region? Does it go up and then come down 20 few miles from your house at the place where fiber connects to the local backbone? It may not matter much to ordinary users, but for big services — think Netflix — it could be very important.

And lastly, how much does it cost? SpaceX wants to make this competitive with terrestrial broadband, which is a little hard to believe considering the growth of fiber, but also not that hard to believe because of telecoms dragging their heels getting to rural areas still using DSL. Out there, Starlink might be a godsend, while in big cities it might be superfluous.

Chances are won’t know for a long time. The 60 satellites up there right now are only the very first wave, and don’t comprise anything more than a test bed for future services. Starlink will have to prove these things work as planned, and then send up several hundred more before it can offer even the most rudimentary service. Of course, that is the plan, and might even be accomplished by the end of the year. In the meantime I’ve asked SpaceX for more details and will update this post if I hear back.

Roland’s tiny R-07 recorder is better than your phone’s recorder app

In an era when the smartphone can do everything, why do you need a standalone audio recorder? Roland, makers of music gear, might have an answer.

Their R-07 voice recorder is about as big as original iPod and is designed for music recording, practice, and playback. It features two microphones on top as well as an auxiliary microphone in. It also includes a headphone jack and supports Bluetooth.

As a recorder the R-07 is a single-touch marvel. You record by turning it on and pressing the center button. It records to MicroSD card and can create up to 96 kHz 24-bit WAVs and 320 kbps MP3s. It runs on USB power or two AA batteries.

A Scene mode makes the R-07 a bit more interesting. It has built-in limiters and low cut, essentially features that will make voices crisper. Further, you can set it to “Music Long” to record longer performances while using less drive space.

Rehearsal mode lets you hear live audio through audio playback, a great feature for budding musicians.

Finally you can control up to four devices at once via Bluetooth, allowing you to mic various members of a band, for example.

The R-07 costs an acceptable $199 and is shipping now. While it doesn’t beat a massive recorder with dual mics and XLR inputs like the Zoom H6 in terms of versatility, in terms of portability and sound quality – not to mention music-friendly features, the R-07 is a great alternative to the Voice Memos app on your phone.
In an era when the smartphone can do everything, why do you need a standalone audio recorder? Roland, makers of music gear, might have an answer.

Their R-07 voice recorder is about as big as original iPod and is designed for music recording, practice, and playback. It features two microphones on top as well as an auxiliary microphone in. It also includes a headphone jack and supports Bluetooth.

As a recorder the R-07 is a single-touch marvel. You record by turning it on and pressing the center button. It records to MicroSD card and can create up to 96 kHz 24-bit WAVs and 320 kbps MP3s. It runs on USB power or two AA batteries.

A Scene mode makes the R-07 a bit more interesting. It has built-in limiters and low cut, essentially features that will make voices crisper. Further, you can set it to “Music Long” to record longer performances while using less drive space.

Rehearsal mode lets you hear live audio through audio playback, a great feature for budding musicians.

Finally you can control up to four devices at once via Bluetooth, allowing you to mic various members of a band, for example.

The R-07 costs an acceptable $199 and is shipping now. While it doesn’t beat a massive recorder with dual mics and XLR inputs like the Zoom H6 in terms of versatility, in terms of portability and sound quality – not to mention music-friendly features, the R-07 is a great alternative to the Voice Memos app on your phone.

You can do it, robot! Watch the beefy, 4-legged HyQReal pull a plane

It’s not really clear just yet exactly what all these powerful, agile quadrupedal robots people are working on are going to do, exactly, but even so it never gets old watching them do their thing. The latest is an Italian model called HyQReal, which demonstrates its aspiration to winning strongman competitions, among other things, by pulling an airplane behind it.

The video is the debut for HyQReal, which is the successor to HyQ, a much smaller model created years ago by the Italian Institute of Technology, and its close relations. Clearly the market, such as it is, has advanced since then, and discerning customers now want the robot equivalent of a corn-fed linebacker.

That’s certainly how HyQReal seems to be positioned; in its video, the camera lingers lovingly on its bulky titanium haunches and thick camera cage. Its low slung body recalls a bulldog rather than a cheetah or sprightly prey animal. You may think twice before kicking this one.

The robot was presented today at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, where in a workshop (documented by IEEE Spectrum) the team described HyQReal’s many bulkinesses.

It’s about four feet long and three high, weighs 130 kilograms (around 287 pounds), of which the battery comprises 15 — enough for about two hours of duty. It’s resistant to dust and water exposure and should be able to get itself up should it fall or tip over. The robot was created in collaboration with Moog, which created special high-powered hydraulics for the purpose.

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It sounds good on paper, and the robot clearly has the torque needed to pull a small passenger airplane, as you can see in the video. But that’s not really what robots like this are for — they need to generate versatility and robustness under a variety of circumstances, and the smarts to navigate a human-centric world and provide useful services.

Right now HyQReal is basically still a test bed — it needs to have all kinds of work done to make sure it will stand up under conditions that robots like Spot Mini have already aced. And engineering things like arm or cargo attachments is far from trivial. All the same it’s exciting to see competition in a space that, just a few years back, seemed totally new (and creepy).

Spansive’s first wireless charger powers multiple phones simultaneously and works through thick cases

When Pi Charging (winner of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017) rebranded as Spansive last month, the company also dropped plans for its previously shown cone-shaped charger capable of charging phones placed within a few inches around it. That charger would’ve required special cases for each device — and as the world quickly adopted built-in wireless charging standards like Qi, that no longer seemed like the right move.

They did say, however, that they were working on a different, Qi-centric wireless charging device with a “few tricks” of its own, and that it’d arrive by summer. This is that charger.

Called the Spansive Source, it’s a base station capable of wirelessly charging four phones at once. Unlike their cone-shaped charger, you’ll need to set your phone pretty much right on top of the Source — but unlike most pad-based wireless chargers, you won’t need to fuss with getting it aligned just right. Built using some of the same concepts they’d figured out with the cone-shaped charger, Spansive tells me that Source can determine where your phone is placed on the pad and adjust its array of magnetic charging coils accordingly. It’s also able to charge right through many brands of phone cases.

Spansive CEO and co-founder John MacDonald brought a few of his chargers to our office — and, while it’s tough in a short demo to gauge how well something like this works, it seemed to do what they promised. He placed one phone after another onto the base station, and each one’s screen lit up, its respective battery percentage ticking upward. He placed a phone with a thick Otterbox on the charger; it started juicing right up. The last phone he added to the pile had an Otterbox and a PopSocket on it, and it seemed to work all the same.

Spansive says Source charges at a rate of up to 5W for each phone being charged wirelessly, while the USB ports push up to 12W. MacDonald tells me that the wireless charging rate isn’t impacted by the number of phones on the pad; in other words, the first phone won’t charge slower just because you’ve added another phone or two to the charger.

MacDonald was careful to note that the Source is built to charge phones, specifically. The angled design would make resting something like an Apple Watch on it a bit awkward, for example — so Source also has two USB ports on its side, meant to help charge your various other devices. Even within the phone category, Spansive isn’t promising full compatibility across all Qi phones right off the bat; MacDonald tells me they’ve focused on getting it to work with Samsung’s Galaxy phones (beginning with the S7) and iPhones (beginning with iPhone 8), with certification/compatibility with other phones likely coming down the road via over-the-air software update. It has Wi-Fi built-in for pulling down those updates, with a button on Source’s base for wiping your Wi-Fi credentials with a tap if you don’t want yet another IoT device on your network indefinitely.

Source goes up for sale today at $189, shipping immediately in two colors: white and charcoal.

Indiegogo hires Reddit’s Andy Yang as new CEO

Indiegogo has a new chief. Andy Yang will take over for outgoing CEO David Mandelbrot who is stepping down. According to sources close to the company, several other Indiegogo employees are also leaving. Indiegogo has yet to confirm this claim or state the number or reason for their departure.

Mandelbrot announced the move on LinkedIn, citing “personal reasons” as the reason he’s leaving. He was at Indiegogo for six years starting as SVP of Operations in August of 2013.

Andy Yang comes to Indiegogo from Reddit where he was most recently leading its product team. He was previously the CEO of 500px.

Yang comes to Indiegogo at a critical time for the company. Consumers are increasingly becoming jaded by crowdfunding projects that leave backers without their promised product. Under Mandelbrot’s leadership, he helped Indiegogo net several key partners including General Electric and Lego. The company also enlisted the help of several manufacturing and marketing professionals to help backers make projects into products.

TechCrunch requested an interview with Yang, but has yet to be granted that request.