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December 12, 2018
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WhiteFox Defense lands $12 million as the demand for drone defense technologies intensifies

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Four months ago, when two commercial DJI-made drones loaded with 1 kilogram each of plastic explosive href=”https://techcrunch.com/2018/08/05/venezuela-claims-drones-loaded-with-explosives-used-in-failed-attack-on-president/”>detonated during a speech from Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro at a military event in Caracas, the world at large was introduced to the newest threat from our automated, dystopian present — cheap weaponized drone technology.

For Luke Fox, the founder and chief executive of WhiteFox Defense Technologies, it was simply the latest in a string of events proving the need for the kinds of services his company is developing. Something he calls “a highway patrol for the sky.”

From drug smuggling to reconnaissance and information gathering to terror attacks, unmanned aerial drones are no longer the provenance of state military and police actors, and are increasingly being used by criminal organizations to open new, aerial fronts in their operations.

“Drones are by far the biggest asymmetric threat that the U.S. faces,” says Fox. “Countries that don’t have a state sponsored drone program are using them [and] it’s where you see people like ISIS are going.”

In the battle for Mosul in Iraq, ISIS flew over 300 drone missions in one month, according to a talk given last year at CyCon from Peter Singer, a senior fellow and strategist at the New America Foundation. One-third of those were strike missions, representing the first time U.S. military faced an aerial attack since the Korean War.

The 24-year-old Fox began thinking seriously about the weaponization of commercial and consumer drone technology six years ago, when he founded WhiteFox Defense.

Creating the company was an extension of the way that Fox had been taught to think about the world as a child, he’s said. Fox grew up in an abusive foster home, raised by a mentally ill foster mother (who was, herself, a child protective service employee) who had adopted him and a number of mentally and physically challenged children.

“The reality i grew up in had my mind constantly looking for vulnerabilities. And instead of seeing these vulnerabilities as opportunities for crime i now had a whole color palette to choose from,” said Fox. “For example when the world started going crazy over drones as recreational toys i saw that they could be used as weapons or crime and this insight into the criminal mind inspired a company that defends the country from drones.”

Fox was adopted from foster care by the librarian of his local Sacramento-area high school, tested out of college and went on to a community college before enrolling in California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo.

He began working with drones while in school and credits that introduction to the technology as the inspiration for starting White Fox.

“We previously started out in drone manufacturing starting out in high performance drones for specialty clients and research organizations. we needed affordable drones that were highly capable,” said Fox. “Making a highly capable drone that was very affordable attracted some very shady people. And, realizing that there was only so much we could control, it brought us to ask what is out there? At the time, the only thing to counter drones related attacks was large missiles shooting down large Iranian drones.”

WhiteFox currently has three products either in development or on the market. Two have already been released to a select group of customers in different industries and the entire suite will be launched at the beginning of next year, according to Fox.

Without going into specific details of how the technology works, Fox said that WhiteFox Defense systems can detect, identify and mitigate unauthorized drones flying in a particular airspace.

“It’s not jamming or blocking drones or catching them out of the sky,” says Fox. Rather the idea is to provide situational awareness and identify the type of threat that an errant drone represents — whether the operator is, in Fox’s words, “clueless, careless or criminal.”

What Fox would say is that his company has developed a technology that’s based on identifying and differentiating between drones based on their unique radio frequency signatures. That product for identifying drones operating in a space is complemented by a second technology offering which allows WhiteFox to take control of the unauthorized drones in an airspace.

“One of the technologies that was started at Drones For Change [the company that would become WhiteFox] was a universal controller,” said Fox. “That technology really formed the basis. We asked what if this universal controller could become a master controller to take over any drone that was in your airspace? That solved the problem that got us out of drone manufacturing.”

WhiteFox isn’t alone in its attempts to create anti-drone technology. According to some industry statistics there are at least 70 companies working on drone defense technologies with solutions ranging from deploying other drones to capture unauthorized UAVs to jamming technologies that will block a drone’s signal.

Earlier this year, Airspace Systems raised $20 million for its kinetic(drone vs. drone) approach to drone defense, while Citadel Defense raised $12 million and Dedrone pulled in $15 million for their drone-jamming technologies.  And last year, SkySafe raised $11.5 million for a radio-jamming approach similar to WhiteFox, which forces unauthorized drones out of restricted airspace while permitting authorized drones to still fly.

“As​ ​the​ ​adoption​ ​of​ ​consumer​ ​drones increases,​ ​we​ ​believe​ ​it​ ​is​ ​vital​ ​for​ ​an​ ​ambitious​ ​and​ ​effective​ ​defense​ ​platform​ ​to​ ​emerge,” said Alex Rubacalva, a partner at Stage Venture Partners and an early investor in WhiteFox Defense. 

In all, drone-related startups have raised nearly $2 billion in the last eight years, according to data from Crunchbase, pulled at the beginning of 2018. Roughly $600 million of that investment total has come in 2017 and the early part of 2018 alone, the Crunchbase data indicated.

Technologies like SkySafe and WhiteFox are about more than just defending airspace from malicious actors.

“Counter drone technology is not just about securing spaces from drones and preventing bad things from happening,” says Fox. “It’s about enabling drones to be used in the right way.”

The applications extend far beyond military uses. In fact, Fox’s technology is already being adopted by prisons around the U.S. and, indeed, anywhere where airspace usage can be considered sensitive.

“Someone described as the largest delivery operations in the world is happening at prisons,” said Fox. “You have a lot of money behind buying a DJI at best buy and loading it up with heroin, with drugs, with weapons, with even chinese food that was smuggled in. We found that there were drones smuggling in contraband every single day.”

WhiteFox recently conducted a survey with an undisclosed large public prison system in the United States to study just how pervasive a problem drone-smuggling was among its prison population. What the prison saw as one drone a week flying into restricted airspace became a realization that multiple drone flights per day were occurring in attempts to smuggle contraband onto prison grounds.

Operations extend far beyond police and military applications though, according to Fox.

During the California wildfires, rescue operations were halted thanks to unauthorized usage of drones by civilian operators who wanted to capture footage of the disaster. Their actions potentially risked the lives of not only rescue workers but of the citizens they were trying to save and the fire crews attempting to control the worst wildfire in the state’s history.

“This is one of the fascinating things about this industry as a whole,” says Fox. “It’s not that drones are bad and scary and we need to do something about them. If we’re going to embrace this technology as a society we need to be able to safely integrate it into society.”

From its initial deployments, WhiteFox was able to convince investors to funnel $12 million into the company to finance its expansion plans.

The extension of the company’s seed round included investors like JAM Capital, Stage Venture Partners, Okapi Venture Capital, Serra Ventures, and OCA Ventures. 

“WhiteFox’s customers are armed with a highly robust and scalable-for-deployment technology​ ​platform​ ​that​ ​addresses​ ​the​ ​increased​ ​threat​ ​of​ ​hostile​ ​drones​ ​and enables​ ​greater​ ​control​ ​of​ ​their​ ​airspace.,” said Jeff Bocan, a partner at OKapi Venture Capital, in a statement.​ “Crucially, the WhiteFox’s technology also offers customers the ability to protect against reckless drone use, while enabling “friendly” drones to fly freely – all without any human intervention.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Logitech is reportedly offering $2.2 billion to bring Plantronics headsets into its hardware empire

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Logitech, the manufacturer best known for its computing peripherals like keyboards and web cameras, is in talks to buy Plantronics, a maker of bluetooth-enabled headsets, according to Reuters.

The company is reportedly offering as much as $2.2 billion for Plantronics, according to the Reuters report, in what would be Logitech’s biggest acquisition to date.

Driving the consolidation push is an effort by both companies to cut costs as tariffs on imports from China could eat into their margins or force them to raise prices for consumers against a backdrop of increasing competition from a number of different vendors.

Reuters is reporting that the deal between the two companies could be finalized as early as next week.

We’ve reached out to both Logitech and Plantronics for comment and will update this story when we hear back.

News of the deal sent Plantronics shares up in after hours trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Both Logitech and Plantronics have been active acquirers in the past year. Most recently, Logitech acquired the Blue Microphone business, which made popular podcasting microphones like the Yeti and Snowball.

 

Meanwhile Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Plantronics had bought Polycom in a $2 billion transaction earlier this year. The company, which started out making headsets for airline pilots and later sold equipment to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has struggled with low-cost competitors and new entrants into the headset market (like Apple).

 

 

News Source = techcrunch.com

New U.S. report says that climate change could cost nearly $500 billion per year by 2090

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A new report from the U.S. government on the impacts of climate change on society indicates that unless action is taken, climatological events could cost the country nearly half a trillion dollars annually by 2090.

The National Climate Assessment is a congressionally mandated report on the impacts of climate change and was culled from the work of 300 authors in a dozen federal agencies. The 1,000 page report covers the effect of climate change on agriculture, labor, geography, and health in the United States.

It’s the second volume of a report intended to give federal policymakers information on how global warming will impact the United States. 

It also comes at a time when the current administration is doing everything to refute the mounting evidence coming from inside its own agencies and shirk its national and international commitments to mitigating the effects of global climate change.

In the absence of more significant global mitigation efforts, climate change is projected to impose substantial damages on the U.S. economy, human health, and the environment. Under scenarios with high emissions and limited or no adaptation, annual losses in some sectors are estimated to grow to hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century. It is very likely that some physical and ecological impacts will be irreversible for thousands of years, while others will be permanent.

There is hope that the world can still change course and reverse the effects associated with climate change. In fact, the study says that near-term mitigation efforts should begin showing results by the middle of the century. It’ll let scientists know what steps they’re taking are working and what aren’t — ideally.

Many climate change impacts and associated economic damages in the United States can be substantially reduced over the course of the 21st century through global-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, though the magnitude and timing of avoided risks vary by sector and region. The effect of near-term emissions mitigation on reducing risks is expected to become apparent by mid-century and grow substantially thereafter.

But for the scientists that collected the data and assembled the report, the evidence of the human impact of climate change is now incontrovertible.

Observations from around the world show the widespread effects of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations on Earth’s climate. High temperature extremes and heavy precipitation events are increasing. Glaciers and snow cover are shrinking, and sea ice is retreating. Seas are warming, rising, and becoming more acidic, and marine species are moving to new locations toward cooler waters. Flooding is becoming more frequent along the U.S. coastline. Growing seasons are lengthening, and wildfires are increasing.

While the federal government may not be willing to take action to curb the emissions that contribute to global warming, states, led by California, increasingly are developing legislation to mitigate or reduce carbon emissions and to create adaptation strategies for dealing with a warming climate.

Venture capitalists also are beginning to commit significant capital to technologies focused on alternative energy generation, energy storage, emissions reduction, and energy conservation that all fall under the category of sustainable solutions.

Indeed, the public offering for the vegetarian consumer food company, Beyond Meat, shows that there’s a growing market for investments in companies that promote a more sustainable lifestyle.

And early stage accelerator programs like Y Combinator are also getting into the game, calling for startups that are developing technologies to reduce the emissions that are contributing to global warming.

The new report from the government paints a dire picture for the future if nothing is done, but, as the investment and technology community once again mobilizes to develop potential solutions, there’s a chance that things may not be completely hopeless yet.

The critical step will be if the U.S. government will heed the advice of its own scientists, and take steps to encourage greater action to what is increasingly looking like the biggest threat to human welfare.

News Source = techcrunch.com

A leaky database of SMS text messages exposed password resets and two-factor codes

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A security lapse has exposed a massive database containing tens of millions of text messages, including password reset links, two-factor codes, shipping notifications and more.

The exposed server belongs to Voxox (formerly Telcentris), a San Diego, Calif.-based communications company. The server wasn’t protected with a password, allowing anyone who knew where to look to peek in and snoop on a near-real-time stream of text messages.

For Sébastien Kaul, a Berlin-based security researcher, it didn’t take long to find.

Although Kaul found the exposed server on Shodan, a search engine for publicly available devices and databases, it was also attached to to one of Voxox’s own subdomains. Worse, the database — running on Amazon’s Elasticsearch — was configured with a Kibana front-end, making the data within easily readable, browsable and searchable for names, cell numbers and the contents of the text messages themselves.

An example of one text message containing a user’s phone number and their Microsoft account reset code. (Image: TechCrunch)

Most don’t think about what happens behind the scenes when you get a text message from a company, whether it’s an Amazon shipping notification or a two-factor code for your login. Often, app developers — like HQ Trivia and Viber — will employ technologies provided by firms like Telesign and Nexmo, either to verify a user’s phone number or to send a two-factor authentication code, for example. But it’s firms like Voxox that act as a gateway and converting those codes into text messages, to be passed on to the cell networks for delivery to the user’s phone.

After an inquiry by TechCrunch, Voxox pulled the database offline. At the time of its closure, the database appeared to have a little over 26 million text messages year-to-date. But the sheer volume of messages processed through the platform per minute — as seen through the database’s visual front-end — suggests that this figure may be higher.

Each record was meticulously tagged and detailed, including the recipient’s cell phone number, the message, the Voxox customer who sent the message and the shortcode they used.

Among our findings from a cursory review of the data:

  • We found a password sent in plaintext to a Los Angeles phone number by dating app Badoo;
  • Several Booking.com partners were sent their six-digit two-factor codes to log in to the company’s extranet corporate network;
  • Fidelity Investments also sent six-digit security codes to one Chicago Loop area code;
  • Many messages included two-factor verification codes for Google accounts in Latin America;
  • A Mountain View, Calif.-based credit union, the First Tech Federal Credit Union, also sent a temporary banking password in plaintext to a Nebraska number;
  • We found a shipping notification text sent by Amazon with a link, which opened up Amazon’s delivery tracking page, including the UPS tracking number, en route to its destination in Florida;
  • Messenger apps KakaoTalk and Viber, and quiz app HQ Trivia use the service to verify user phone numbers;
  • We also found messages that contained Microsoft’s account password reset codes and Huawei ID verification codes;
  • Yahoo also used the service to send some account keys by text message;
  • And, several small to mid-size hospitals and medical facilities sent reminders to patients about their upcoming appointments, and in some cases, billing inquiries.

“Yeah, this is very bad,” said Dylan Katz, a security researcher, who reviewed some of the findings.

The exposure to personal information and phone numbers notwithstanding, the ability to access two-factor codes in near-real-time could have put countless number of accounts at risk of hijack. In some cases, websites will only require a phone number to reset an account. With access to the text message through the exposed database, hijacking an account could take seconds.

“My real concern here is the potential that this has already been abused,” said Katz. “This is different from most breaches, due to the fact the data is temporary, so once it’s offline any data stolen isn’t very useful.”

Kevin Hertz, Voxox’s co-founder and chief technology officer, said in an email that the company is “looking into the issue and following standard data breach policy at the moment,” and that the company is “evaluating impact.”

Many companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, have rolled out app-based two-factor authentication to thwart SMS-based verification, which has long been seen as vulnerable to interception.

If ever there was an example, this latest exposure would serve well.

News Source = techcrunch.com

The cost of energy storage has stalled adoption of renewable power. Energy Vault has a solution.

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Since solar and wind power are now cheaper to produce than energy from fossil fuels, the only obstacle that remains to the mass adoption of renewable power is the amount of money utilities need to spend to store the energy those systems produce.

Right now, storing 100 megawatts of renewable energy (enough to power roughly 600,000 homes) means spending roughly $65.6 million on massive batteries like the kind made by Tesla, or relying on huge pumped hydro-electric storage projects that essentially create man-made dams where the release of water spins turbines to generate energy (those projects are typically far larger than 100 megawatts).

A new company called Energy Vault, launched from Bill Gross’ Idealab incubator in Pasadena, Calif., has developed a technology, based on the principles of pumped hydro storage, that it claims can slash the cost of energy storage to a fraction of the current price and make renewable energy cost-effective all day, every day. 

As climate change worries mount, finding a solution that can make renewables even more compelling and cost effective isn’t just a good business — it’s a global priority.

Energy Vault’s technology consists of a 33 story high, six-armed crane with booms extending to nearly the length of a football field (about 87 yards). That crane is surrounded by 5,000 huge cement blocks weighing roughly 35 metric tons (or around 172,000 pounds).

“These would typically be built out near wind farms or solar plants,” said Piconi. “This is not something that you’d drop in the middle of the city.”

The cranes are controlled by a software system that manages the movement of the cement blocks to either store the energy generated by solar or wind farms, or discharge that energy onto the power grid.

According to Robert Piconi, the chief executive of Energy Vault, each of the company’s systems will have 35 megawatt hours of nominal energy capacity and 4 megawatts of peak power capacity. Ramp times occur in as little as a millisecond with 100 percent power achieved in 2.9 seconds.

The systems have roundtrip efficiencies of roughly 90 percent and there’s no energy loss since the technology relies on mechanical energy from incredibly durable materials that have a roughly 30-year lifetime.

And all of this at a price tag of around $7 million to $8 million per system, according to Piconi. What makes the system even more sustainable, according to Piconi, is the use of recycled cement that was only going to be landfilled — instead of new cement construction.

Energy Vault has already set up a demonstration system in Biasca, Switzerland, next to the company’s Lugarno headquarters. That demonstration plant likely had a role in the company’s ability to sign up a clutch of initial customers including The Tata Power Company Limited, India’s largest integrated power company, to deploy an initial 35 MWh Energy Vault system by 2019. 

“Innovation in energy storage represents the largest and most near term opportunity to accelerate renewable deployments and bring us closer to replacing fossil fuels as the primary source to meet the world’s continual growth in energy demand”, said Bill Gross, co-founder, Energy Vault and founder, Idealab.  “We’re excited to support Energy Vault in bringing this groundbreaking technology to the market.”

Indeed, over the next two years, Energy Vault expects customers to build between 500 megawatts and one gigawatt of storage capacity using its systems, according to Piconi.

“We have customers on every continent to build these units,” he said. 

Piconi, a former Danaher executive, met Gross twelve years ago as the idealab founder was beginning his push into renewable energy technologies. The two men stayed in touch and began seriously contemplating the creation of Energy Vault after nearly a decade of collaboration and contact.

It was back in 2017 that Piconi, Gross, and fellow co-founder and chief technical officer Andrea Pedretti hit upon the idea for Energy Vault’s novel approach to energy storage.

“It became clear to him a few years ago how important storage was going to be,” said Piconi. 

The three men started looking at the efficiencies available through pumped hydroelectric storage, and began brainstorming ways to mimic that process using mechanical energy. “We looked at a steel tower first, but that was too expensive. We thought about water in a tower pumped up, but there were efficiency issues there,” Piconi said. “Then we got to the concrete bricks and the crane.”

The concrete was important for the cost of materials, and because of the energy intensity and pollution that’s involved with manufacturing cement, the team decided to use recycled cement to make the blocks that its energy storage system would use.

Enter, Cemex, one of the largest cement manufacturers in the world, which has joined with Energy Vault as a partner.

Energy Vault has already raised capital through several “seed” rounds to develop its technology and get the prototype in Switzerland up and running.

“Energy Vault’s team has developed a disruptive platform, and we are enthusiastic to work with their team to deploy an environmentally efficient and cost-effective energy storage solution that is highly viable,” said Dr. Davide Zampini, Head of CEMEX Global R&D and IP. “We share a common commitment to enable a future where resources are used responsibly, which is paramount to CEMEX’s strategy for sustainable development.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

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