All posts in “Hardware”

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.

Bumble bees bearing high-tech backpacks act as a living data collection platform

There’s lots of research going into tiny drones, but one of the many hard parts is keeping them in the air for any real amount of time. Why not hitch a ride on something that already flies all day? That’s the idea behind this project that equips bumble bees with sensor-filled backpacks that charge wirelessly and collect data on the fields they visit.

A hive full of these cyber-bees could help monitor the health of a field by checking temperature and humidity, as well as watching for signs of rot or distress in the crops. A lot of this is done manually now, and of course drones are being set to work doing it, but if the bees are already there, why not get them to help out?

The “Living IoT” backpack, a tiny wafer loaded with electronics and a small battery, was designed by University of Washington engineers led by Shyam Gollakotta. He’s quick to note that although the research does to a certain extent take advantage of these clumsy, fuzzy creatures, they were careful to “follow best methods for care and handling.”

Part of that is minimizing the mass of the pack; other experiments have put RFID antennas and such on the backs of bees and other insects, but this is much more sophisticated.

The chip has sensors and an integrated battery that lets it run for seven hours straight, yet weighs just 102 milligrams. A full-grown bumblebee, for comparison, could weigh anywhere from two to five times that.

They’re strong fliers, if not exact ones, and can carry three quarters of their body weight in pollen and nectar when returning to the hive. So the backpack, while far from unnoticeable, is still well within their capabilities.

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“We showed for the first time that it’s possible to actually do all this computation and sensing using insects in lieu of drones,” explained Gollakotta in a UW news release. “We decided to use bumblebees because they’re large enough to carry a tiny battery that can power our system, and they return to a hive every night where we could wirelessly recharge the batteries.”

The backpacks can track location passively by monitoring the varying strengths of signals from nearby antennas, up to a range of about 80 meters. The data they collect is transferred while they’re in the hive via an energy-efficient backscatter method that Gollakotta has used in other projects.

The applications are many and various, though obviously limited to what can be observed while the bees go about their normal business. It could even help keep the bees themselves healthy.

“It would be interesting to see if the bees prefer one region of the farm and visit other areas less often,” said co-author Sawyer Fuller. “Alternatively, if you want to know what’s happening in a particular area, you could also program the backpack to say: ‘Hey bees, if you visit this location, take a temperature reading.’ ”

It is of course just in prototype form right now, but one can easily imagine the tech being deployed by farmers in the near future, or perhaps in a more sinister way by three-letter agencies wanting to put a bee on the wall near important conversations. The team plans to present their work (PDF) at the ACM MobiCom conference next year.

Lift Aircraft’s Hexa may be your first multirotor drone ride

We were promised jetpacks, but let’s be honest, they’re just plain unsafe. So a nice drone ride is probably all we should reasonably expect. Lift Aircraft is the latest to make a play for the passenger multirotor market, theoretical as it is, and its craft is a sleek little thing with some interesting design choices to make it suitable for laypeople to “pilot.”

The Austin-based company just took the wraps off the Hexa, the 18-rotor craft it intends to make available for short recreational flights. It just flew for the first time last month, and could be taking passengers aloft as early as next year.

The Hexa is considerably more lightweight than the aircraft that seemed to be getting announced every month or two earlier this year. Lift’s focus isn’t on transport, which is a phenomenally complicated problem both in terms or regulation and engineering. Instead, it wants to simply make the experience of flying in a giant drone available for thrill-seekers with a bit of pocket money.

This reduced scope means the craft can get away with being just 432 pounds and capable of 10-15 minutes of sustained flight with a single passenger. Compared with Lilium’s VTOL engines or Volocopter’s 36-foot wingspan, this thing looks like a toy. And that’s essentially what it is, for now. But there’s something to be said for proving your design in a comparatively easily accessed market and moving up, rather than trying to invent an air taxi business from scratch.

“Multi-seat eVTOL air taxis, especially those that are designed to transition to wing-borne flight, are probably 10 years away and will require new regulations and significant advances in battery technology to be practical and safe. We didn’t want to wait for major technology or regulatory breakthroughs to start flying,” said Chasen in a news release. “We’ll be flying years before anyone else.”

The Hexa is flown with a single joystick and an iPad; direct movements and attitude control are done with the former, while destination-based movement, takeoff and landing take place on the latter. This way people can go from walking in the front door to flying one of these things — or rather riding in one and suggesting some directions to go — in an hour or so.

It’s small enough that it doesn’t even count as a “real” aircraft; it’s a “powered ultralight,” which is a plus and a minus: no pilot’s license necessary, but you can’t go past a few hundred feet of altitude or fly over populated areas. No doubt there’s still a good deal of fun you can have flying around a sort of drone theme park, though. The whole area will have been 3D mapped prior to flight, of course.

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Lifting the Hexa are 18 rotors, each of which is powered by its own battery, which spreads the risk out considerably and makes it simple to swap them out. As far as safety is concerned, it can run with up to 6 engines down, has pontoons in case of a water landing, and an emergency parachute should the unthinkable happen.

The team is looking to roll out its drone-riding experience soon, but it has yet to select its first city. Finding a good location, checking with the community, getting the proper permits — not simple. CEO Matt Chasen told New Atlas the craft is “not very loud, but they’re also not whisper-quiet, either.” I’m thinking “not very loud” is in comparison to jets — every drone I’ve ever come across, from palm-sized to cargo-bearing, has made an incredible racket and if someone wanted to start a drone preserve next door I’d fight it tooth and nail. (Apparently Seattle is high on the list, too, so this may come to pass.)

In a sense, engineering a working autonomous multirotor aircraft was the easy part of building this business. Chasen told GeekWire that the company has raised a “typical-size seed round,” and is preparing for a Series A — probably once it has a launch city in its sights.

We’ll likely hear more at SXSW in March, where the Hexa will likely fly its first passengers.