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September 24, 2018
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Rent the Runway opens physical store in San Francisco

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Rent the Runway, the fashion startup that began as a rental service for special occasions and has since evolved over the last couple of years into a service for people also looking to spice up their everyday wear, just opened up its fifth physical, standalone location. The new location, in downtown San Francisco, enables Rent the Runway members to try on clothes, rent and return them.

Rent the Runway’s launch of a standalone brick-and-mortar location in San Francisco comes after it first opened up a location inside Neiman Marcus. With a standalone location, the company is able to offer longer hours for its members. Instead of opening at 10 a.m. and closing at 7 p.m., Rent the Runway can now stay open from 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. It also, of course, has weekend hours.

Thanks to some technology Rent the Runway developed within the last year, it has essentially “legalized shoplifting” for its members, Rent the Runway COO Maureen Sullivan told me yesterday ahead of the store’s launch. Toward the front of the store, there’s a self-return process that enables anyone to quickly return their items. A little farther back in the store, there’s a handful of self-checkout kiosks that let members quickly scan their items and leave.

Since its launch about nine years ago, Rent the Runway has launched two additional product offerings. In addition to its standard Reserve product, a one-time rental, Rent the Runway now offers two subscription products. The first is called Unlimited, which lets members rent four items at a time on a constant rotation (meaning you can swap them out as much as you want) for $159 a month.

The second is called Update, which lets you rent just four items for the whole month for $89 per month. In the event someone really likes what they’ve rented, they always have the option to purchase the item at anywhere from 10 percent to 75 percent off. Today, the subscription products make up 50 percent of Rent the Runway’s revenue, with San Francisco as the third largest subscription market.

In the nine years or so Rent the Runway has been around, a number of other services have cropped up around fashion. Stitch Fix, which went public last November, and Trunk Club by Nordstrom are two of the big ones. But what differentiates Rent the Runway from the likes of Stitch Fix is that, “they’re trying to get you to buy stuff,” Sullivan said. “You’re still buying things that accumulate in your closet.”

The vision with Rent the runway is to get to the point where 50 percent of your closet is rented, and therefore less cluttered. Rent the Runway, for example, has some customers who wear rented clothes 120 days out of the year.

Rent the Runway currently partners with over 500 brands, and operates as a new type of distribution channel for them. What Rent the Runway offers for brands is marketing and discovery, and customer data.

Down the road, Rent the Runway does envision getting into men’s clothing Sullivan said, but right now, there’s “unprecedented growth” in women’s clothing, so that’s where the focus will be for now.

Back in August, Rent the Runway partnered with Temasek for a $200 million credit facility. Before that deal, Rent the Runway had raised more than $200 million from traditional investors like KPCBC, Highland Capital, Bain Capital, TCV and others.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Review: iPhone XS and the power of long-term thinking

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The iPhone XS proves one thing definitively: that the iPhone X was probably one of the most ambitious product bets of all time.

When Apple told me in 2017 that they put aside plans for the iterative upgrade that they were going to ship and went all in on the iPhone X because they thought they could jump ahead a year, they were not blustering. That the iPhone XS feels, at least on the surface, like one of Apple’s most “S” models ever is a testament to how aggressive the iPhone X timeline was.

I think there will be plenty of people who will see this as a weakness of the iPhone XS, and I can understand their point of view. There are about a half-dozen definitive improvements in the XS over the iPhone X, but none of them has quite the buzzword-worthy effectiveness of a marquee upgrade like 64-bit, 3D Touch or wireless charging — all benefits delivered in previous “S” years.

That weakness, however, is only really present if you view it through the eyes of the year-over-year upgrader. As an upgrade over an iPhone X, I’d say you’re going to have to love what they’ve done with the camera to want to make the jump. As a move from any other device, it’s a huge win and you’re going head-first into sculpted OLED screens, face recognition and super durable gesture-first interfaces and a bunch of other genre-defining moves that Apple made in 2017, thinking about 2030, while you were sitting back there in 2016.

Since I do not have an iPhone XR, I can’t really make a call for you on that comparison, but from what I saw at the event and from what I know about the tech in the iPhone XS and XS Max from using them over the past week, I have some basic theories about how it will stack up.

For those with interest in the edge of the envelope, however, there is a lot to absorb in these two new phones, separated only by size. Once you begin to unpack the technological advancements behind each of the upgrades in the XS, you begin to understand the real competitive edge and competence of Apple’s silicon team, and how well they listen to what the software side needs now and in the future.

Whether that makes any difference for you day to day is another question, one that, as I mentioned above, really lands on how much you like the camera.

But first, let’s walk through some other interesting new stuff.

Notes on durability

As is always true with my testing methodology, I treat this as anyone would who got a new iPhone and loaded an iCloud backup onto it. Plenty of other sites will do clean room testing if you like metrics porn, but I really don’t think that does most folks much good. Instead, I try to take them along on prototypical daily carries, whether to work for TechCrunch, on vacation or doing family stuff. A foot injury precluded any theme parks this year (plus, I don’t like to be predictable) so I did some office work, road travel in the center of California and some family outings to the park and zoo. A mix of uses cases that involves CarPlay, navigation, photos and general use in a suburban environment.

In terms of testing locale, Fresno may not be the most metropolitan city, but it’s got some interesting conditions that set it apart from the cities where most of the iPhones are going to end up being tested. Network conditions are pretty adverse in a lot of places, for one. There’s a lot of farmland and undeveloped acreage and not all of it is covered well by wireless carriers. Then there’s the heat. Most of the year it’s above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and a good chunk of that is spent above 100. That means that batteries take an absolute beating here and often perform worse than other, more temperate, places like San Francisco. I think that’s true of a lot of places where iPhones get used, but not so much the places where they get reviewed.

That said, battery life has been hard to judge. In my rundown tests, the iPhone XS Max clearly went beast mode, outlasting my iPhone X and iPhone XS. Between those two, though, it was tougher to tell. I try to wait until the end of the period I have to test the phones to do battery stuff so that background indexing doesn’t affect the numbers. In my ‘real world’ testing in the 90+ degree heat around here, iPhone XS did best my iPhone X by a few percentage points, which is what Apple does claim, but my X is also a year old. I didn’t fail to get through a pretty intense day of testing with the XS once though.

In terms of storage I’m tapping at the door of 256GB, so the addition of 512GB option is really nice. As always, the easiest way to determine what size you should buy is to check your existing free space. If you’re using around 50% of what your phone currently has, buy the same size. If you’re using more, consider upgrading because these phones are only getting faster at taking better pictures and video and that will eat up more space.

The review units I was given both had the new gold finish. As I mentioned on the day, this is a much deeper, brassier gold than the Apple Watch Edition. It’s less ‘pawn shop gold’ and more ‘this is very expensive’ gold. I like it a lot, though it is hard to photograph accurately — if you’re skeptical, try to see it in person. It has a touch of pink added in, especially as you look at the back glass along with the metal bands around the edges. The back glass has a pearlescent look now as well, and we were told that this is a new formulation that Apple created specifically with Corning. Apple says that this is the most durable glass ever in a smartphone.

My current iPhone has held up to multiple falls over 3 feet over the past year, one of which resulted in a broken screen and replacement under warranty. Doubtless multiple YouTubers will be hitting this thing with hammers and dropping it from buildings in beautiful Phantom Flex slo-mo soon enough. I didn’t test it. One thing I am interested in seeing develop, however, is how the glass holds up to fine abrasions and scratches over time.

My iPhone X is riddled with scratches both front and back, something having to do with the glass formulation being harder, but more brittle. Less likely to break on impact but more prone to abrasion. I’m a dedicated no-caser, which is why my phone looks like it does, but there’s no way for me to tell how the iPhone XS and XS Max will hold up without giving them more time on the clock. So I’ll return to this in a few weeks.

Both the gold and space grey iPhones XS have been subjected to a coating process called physical vapor deposition or PVD. Basically metal particles get vaporized and bonded to the surface to coat and color the band. PVD is a process, not a material, so I’m not sure what they’re actually coating these with, but one suggestion has been Titanium Nitride. I don’t mind the weathering that has happened on my iPhone X band, but I think it would look a lot worse on the gold, so I’m hoping that this process (which is known to be incredibly durable and used in machine tooling) will improve the durability of the band. That said, I know most people are not no-casers like me so it’s likely a moot point.

Now let’s get to the nut of it: the camera.

Bokeh let’s do it

I’m (still) not going to be comparing the iPhone XS to an interchangeable lens camera because portrait mode is not a replacement for those, it’s about pulling them out less. That said, this is closest its ever been.

One of the major hurdles that smartphone cameras have had to overcome in their comparisons to cameras with beautiful glass attached is their inherent depth of focus. Without getting too into the weeds (feel free to read this for more), because they’re so small, smartphone cameras produce an incredibly compressed image that makes everything sharp. This doesn’t feel like a portrait or well composed shot from a larger camera because it doesn’t produce background blur. That blur was added a couple of years ago with Apple’s portrait mode and has been duplicated since by every manufacturer that matters — to varying levels of success or failure.

By and large, most manufacturers do it in software. They figure out what the subject probably is, use image recognition to see the eyes/nose/mouth triangle is, build a quick matte and blur everything else. Apple does more by adding the parallax of two lenses OR the IR projector of the TrueDepth array that enables Face ID to gather a 9-layer depth map.

As a note, the iPhone XR works differently, and with less tools, to enable portrait mode. Because it only has one lens it uses focus pixels and segmentation masking to ‘fake’ the parallax of two lenses.

With the iPhone XS, Apple is continuing to push ahead with the complexity of its modeling for the portrait mode. The relatively straightforward disc blur of the past is being replaced by a true bokeh effect.

Background blur in an image is related directly to lens compression, subject-to-camera distance and aperture. Bokeh is the character of that blur. It’s more than just ‘how blurry’, it’s the shapes produced from light sources, the way they change throughout the frame from center to edges, how they diffuse color and how they interact with the sharp portions of the image.

Bokeh is to blur what seasoning is to a good meal. Unless you’re the chef, you probably don’t care what they did you just care that it tastes great.

Well, Apple chef-ed it the hell up with this. Unwilling to settle for a templatized bokeh that felt good and leave it that, the camera team went the extra mile and created an algorithmic model that contains virtual ‘characteristics’ of the iPhone XS’s lens. Just as a photographer might pick one lens or another for a particular effect, the camera team built out the bokeh model after testing a multitude of lenses from all of the classic camera systems.

I keep saying model because it’s important to emphasize that this is a living construct. The blur you get will look different from image to image, at different distances and in different lighting conditions, but it will stay true to the nature of the virtual lens. Apple’s bokeh has a medium-sized penumbra, spreading light out from light sources but not blowing them out. It maintains color nicely, making sure that the quality of light isn’t obscured like it is with so many other portrait applications in other phones that just pick a spot and create a circle of standard gaussian or disc blur.

Check out these two images, for instance. Note that when the light is circular, it retains its shape, as does the rectangular light. It is softened and blurred, as it would when diffusing through the widened aperture of a regular lens. The same goes with other shapes in reflected light scenarios.

Now here’s the same shot from an iPhone X, note the indiscriminate blur of the light. This modeling effort is why I’m glad that the adjustment slider proudly carries f-stop or aperture measurements. This is what this image would look like at a given aperture, rather than a 0-100 scale. It’s very well done and, because it’s modeled, it can be improved over time. My hope is that eventually, developers will be able to plug in their own numbers to “add lenses” to a user’s kit.

And an adjustable depth of focus isn’t just good for blurring, it’s also good for un-blurring. This portrait mode selfie placed my son in the blurry zone because it focused on my face. Sure, I could turn the portrait mode off on an iPhone X and get everything sharp, but now I can choose to “add” him to the in-focus area while still leaving the background blurry. Super cool feature I think is going to get a lot of use.

It’s also great for removing unwanted people or things from the background by cranking up the blur.

And yes, it works on non humans.

If you end up with an iPhone XS, I’d play with the feature a bunch to get used to what a super wide aperture lens feels like. When its open all the way to f1.4 (not the actual widest aperture of the lens btw, this is the virtual model we’re controlling) pretty much only the eyes should be in focus. Ears, shoulders, maybe even nose could be out of the focus area. It takes some getting used to but can produce dramatic results.

Developers do have access to one new feature though, the segmentation mask. This is a more precise mask that aids in edge detailing, improving hair and fine line detail around the edges of a portrait subject. In my testing it has led to better handling of these transition areas and less clumsiness. It’s still not perfect, but it’s better. And third-party apps like Halide are already utilizing it. Halide’s co-creator, Sebastiaan de With, says they’re already seeing improvements in Halide with the segmentation map.

“Segmentation is the ability to classify sets of pixels into different categories,” says de With. “This is different than a “Hot dog, not a hot dog” problem, which just tells you whether a hot dog exists anywhere in the image. With segmentation, the goal is drawing an outline over just the hot dog. It’s an important topic with self driving cars, because it isn’t enough to tell you there’s a person somewhere in the image. It needs to know that person is directly in front of you. On devices that support it, we use PEM as the authority for what should stay in focus. We still use the classic method on old devices (anything earlier than iPhone 8), but the quality difference is huge.

The above is an example shot in Halide that shows the image, the depth map and the segmentation map.

In the example below, the middle black-and-white image is what was possible before iOS 12. Using a handful of rules like, “Where did the user tap in the image?” We constructed this matte to apply our blur effect. It’s no bad by any means, but compare it to the image on the right. For starters, it’s much higher resolution, which means the edges look natural.

My testing of portrait mode on the iPhone XS says that it is massively improved, still some quirks that will lead to weirdness and it’s not quite aggressive enough on foreground objects — those should blur too but only sometimes do. But the quirks are overshadowed by the super cool addition of the adjustable background blur.

Live preview of the depth control is not in iOS 12 at the launch of the iPhone XS, but it will be coming in a future version of iOS 12 this fall.

I also shoot a huge amount of photos with the telephoto lens. It’s closer to what you’d consider to be a standard lens on a camera. The normal lens is really wide and once you acclimate to the telephoto you’re left wondering why you have a bunch of pictures of people in the middle of a ton of foreground and sky. If you haven’t already, I’d say try defaulting to 2x for a couple of weeks and see how you like your photos. For those tight conditions or really broad landscapes you can always drop it back to the wide. Because of this, any iPhone that doesn’t have a telephoto is a basic non-starter for me, which is going to be one of the limiters on people moving to iPhone XR from iPhone X, I believe. Even iPhone 8 Plus users who rely on the telephoto I believe will miss it if they don’t go to the XS.

But, man, Smart HDR is where it’s at

I’m going to say something now that is surely going to cause some Apple followers to snort, but it’s true. Here it is:

For a company as prone to hyperbole and Maximum Force Enthusiasm about its products, I think that they have dramatically undersold how much improved photos are from the iPhone X to the iPhone XS. It’s extreme, and it has to do with a technique Apple calls Smart HDR.

Smart HDR on the iPhone XR encompasses a bundle of techniques and technology including highlight recovery, rapid-firing the sensor, an OLED screen with much improved dynamic range and the Neural Engine/image signal processor combo. It’s now running faster sensors and offloading some of the work to the CPU, which enables firing off nearly two images for every one it used to in order to make sure that motion does not create ghosting in HDR images, it’s picking the sharpest image and merging the other frames into it in a smarter way and applying tone mapping that produces more even exposure and color in the roughest of lighting conditions.

iPhone XS shot, better range of tones, skintone and black point

iPhone X Shot, not a bad image at all, but blocking up of shadow detail, flatter skin tone and blue shift

Nearly every image you shoot on an iPhone XS or iPhone XS Max will have HDR applied to it. It does it so much that Apple has stopped labeling most images with HDR at all. There’s still a toggle to turn Smart HDR off if you wish, but by default it will trigger any time it feels it’s needed.

And that includes more types of shots that could not benefit from HDR before. Panoramic shots, for instance, as well as burst shots, low light photos and every frame of Live Photos is now processed.

The results for me have been massively improved quick snaps with no thought given to exposure or adjustments due to poor lighting. Your camera roll as a whole will just suddenly start looking like you’re a better picture taker, with no intervention from you.

Under the hood

As far as Face ID goes, there has been no perceivable difference for me in speed or number of positives, but my facial model has been training on my iPhone X for a year. It’s starting fresh on iPhone XS. And I’ve always been lucky that Face ID has just worked for me most of the time. The gist of the improvements here are jumps in acquisition times and confirmation of the map to pattern match. There is also supposed to be improvements in off-angle recognition of your face, say when lying down or when your phone is flat on a desk. I tried a lot of different positions here and could never really definitively say that iPhone XS was better in this regard, though as I said above, it very likely takes training time to get it near the confidence levels that my iPhone X has stored away.

In terms of CPU performance the world’s first 7nm architecture has paid dividends. You can see from the iPhone XS benchmarks that it compares favorably to fast laptops and easily exceeds iPhone X performance.

The Neural Engine and better A12 chip has meant for better frame rates in intense games and AR, image searches, some small improvement in app launches. One easy way to demonstrate this is the video from the iScape app, captured on an iPhone X and an iPhone XS. You can see how jerky and FPS challenged the iPhone X is in a similar AR scenario. There is so much more overhead for AR experiences I know developers are going to be salivating for what they can do here.

The stereo sound is impressive, surpassingly decent separation for a phone and definitely louder. The tradeoff is that you get asymmetrical speaker grills so if that kind of thing annoys you you’re welcome.

Upgrade or no

Every other year for the iPhone I see and hear the same things — that the middle years are unimpressive and not worthy of upgrading. And I get it, money matters, phones are our primary computer and we want the best bang for our buck. This year, as I mentioned at the outset, the iPhone X has created its own little pocket of uncertainty by still feeling a bit ahead of its time.

I don’t kid myself into thinking that we’re going to have an honest discussion about whether you want to upgrade from the iPhone X to iPhone XS or not. You’re either going to do it because you want to or you’re not going to do it because you don’t feel it’s a big enough improvement.

And I think Apple is completely fine with that because iPhone XS really isn’t targeted at iPhone X users at all, it’s targeted at the millions of people who are not on a gesture-first device that has Face ID. I’ve never been one to recommend someone upgrade every year anyway. Every two years is more than fine for most folks — unless you want the best camera, then do it.

And, given that Apple’s fairly bold talk about making sure that iPhones last as long as they can, I think that it is well into the era where it is planning on having a massive installed user base that rents iPhones from it on a monthly or yearly or biennial period. Because that user base will need for-pay services that Apple can provide.

With the iPhone XS, we might just be seeing the true beginning of the iPhone-as-a-service era.

News Source = techcrunch.com

African experiments with drone technologies could leapfrog decades of infrastructure neglect

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A drone revolution is coming to sub-Saharan Africa.

Countries across the continent are experimenting with this 21st century technology as a way to leapfrog decades of neglect of 20th century infrastructure.

Over the last two years, San Francisco-based startup Zipline launched a national UAV delivery program in East Africa; South Africa passed commercial drone legislation to train and license pilots; and Malawi even opened a Drone Test Corridor to African and its global partners. 

In Rwanda, the country’s government became one of the first adopters of performance-based regulations for all drones earlier this year. The country’s progressive UAV programs drew special attention from the White House and two U.S. Secretaries of Transportation.

Some experts believe Africa’s drone space could contribute to UAV development in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe.

“The fact that [global drone] companies can operate in Africa and showcase amazing use cases…is a big benefit,” said Lisa Ellsman, co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance.

Test in Africa

It’s clear that the UAV programs in Malawi and Rwanda are getting attention from international drone companies.

Opened in 2017, Malawi’s Drone Test Corridor has been accepting global applications. The program is managed by the country’s Civil Aviation Authority in partnership with UNICEF.

The primary purpose is to test UAV’s for humanitarian purposes, but the program “was designed to provide a controlled platform for… governments…and other partners…to explore how UAV’s can help deliver services,” according to Michael Scheibenreif, UNICEF’s drone lead in Malawi.

That decision to include the private sector opened the launch pads for commercial drones. Swedish firm GLOBEHE has tested using the corridor and reps from Chinese e-commerce company JD have toured the site. Other companies to test in Malawi’s corridor include Belgian UAV air traffic systems company Unifly and U.S. delivery drone manufacturer Vayu, according to Scheibenreif.

Though the government of Rwanda is most visible for its Zipline partnership, it shaping a national testing program for multiple drone actors. 

“We don’t want to limit ourselves with just one operator,” said Claudette Irere, Director General of the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications (MiTEC).

“When we started with Zipline it was more of a pilot to see if this could work,” she said. “As we’ve gotten more interest and have grown the program…this gives us an opportunity to open up to other drone operators, and give space to our local UAV operators.”

Irere said Rwanda has been approached by 16 drone operators, “some of them big names”—but could not reveal them due to temporary NDAs. She also highlighted Charis UAS, a Rwandan drone company, that’s used the country’s test program, and is now operating commercially in and outside of Rwanda.

UAV Policy

Africa’s commercial drone history is largely compressed to a handful of projects and countries within the last 5-7 years. Several governments have jumped out ahead on UAV policy.

In 2016, South Africa passed drone legislation regulating the sector under the country’s Civil Aviation Authority. The guidelines set training requirements for commercial drone pilots to receive Remote Pilot Licenses (RPLs) for Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems. At the end of 2017 South Africa had registered 686 RPLs and 663 drone aircraft systems, according to a recent State of Drone Report.

Over the last year and a half Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania have issued or updated drone regulatory guidelines and announced future UAV initiatives.  

In 2018, Rwanda extended its leadership role on drone policy when it adopted performance-based regulations for all drones—claiming to be the first country in the world to do so.

So what does this mean?

“In performance-based regulation the government states this is our safety threshold and you companies tell us the combination of technologies and operational mitigations you’re going to use to meet it,” said Timothy Reuter, Civil Drones Project Head at the World Economic Forum.

Lisa Ellsman, shared a similar interpretation.

“Rather than the government saying ‘you have to use this kind of technology to stop your drone,’ they would say, ‘your drone needs to be able to stop in so many seconds,’” she said.

This gives the drone operators flexibility to build drones around performance targets, vs. “prescriptively requiring a certain type of technology,” according to Ellsman.

Rwanda is still working out the implementation of its performance-based regulations, according to MiTEC’s Claudette Irere. They’ve entered a partnership with the World Economic Forum to further build out best practices. Rwanda will also soon release an online portal for global drone operators to apply to test there.

As for Rwanda being first to release performance-based regulations, that’s disputable. “Many States around the world have been developing and implementing performance-based regulations for unmanned aircraft,” said Leslie Cary, Program Manager for the International Civil Aviation Authority’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft System. “ICAO has not monitored all of these States to determine which was first,” she added.

Other governments have done bits and pieces of Rwanda’s drone policy, according to Timothy Reuter, the head of the civil drones project at the World Economic Forum. “But as currently written in Rwanda, it’s the broadest implementation of performance based regulations in the world.”

Commercial Use Cases

As the UAV programs across Africa mature, there are a handful of strong examples and several projects to watch.

With Zipline as the most robust and visible drone use case in Sub-Saharan Africa.

While the startup’s primary focus is delivery of critical medical supplies, execs repeatedly underscore that Zipline is a for-profit venture backed by $41 million in VC.

The San Francisco-based robotics company — that also manufactures its own UAVs — was one of the earliest drone partners of the government of Rwanda.

Zipline demonstration

The alliance also brought UPS and the UPS Foundation into the mix, who supports Zipline with financial and logistical support.

After several test rounds, Zipline went live with the program in October, becoming the world’s first national drone delivery program at scale.

“We’ve since completed over 6000 deliveries and logged 500,000 flight kilometers,” Zipline co-founder Keenan Wyrobek told TechCrunch. “We’re planning to go live in Tanzania soon and talking to some other African countries.”  

In May Zipline was accepted into the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP). Out of 149 applicants, the Africa focused startup was one of 10 selected to participate in a drone pilot in the U.S.– to operate beyond visual line of sight medical delivery services in North Carolina.    

In a non-delivery commercial use case, South Africa’s Rocketmine has built out a UAV survey business in 5 countries. The company looks to book $2 million in revenue in 2018 for its “aerial data solutions” services in mining, agriculture, forestry, and civil engineering.

“We have over 50 aircraft now, compared to 15 a couple years ago,” Rocketmine CEO Christopher Clark told TechCrunch. “We operate in South Africa, Namibia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and moved into Mexico.”

Rocketmine doesn’t plan to enter delivery services, but is looking to expand into the surveillance and security market. “After the survey market that’s probably the biggest request we get from our customers,” said Clark.

More African use cases are likely to come from the Lake Victoria Challenge — a mission specific drone operator challenge set in Tanzania’s Mwanza testing corridor. WeRobotics has also opened FlyingLabs in Kenya, Tanzania, and Benin. And the government of Zambia is reportedly working with Sony’s Aerosense on a drone delivery pilot program.

Africa and Global UAV

With Europe, Asia, and the U.S. rapidly developing drone regulations and testing (or already operating) delivery programs (see JD.com in China), Africa may not take the sole position as the leader in global UAV development — but these pilot projects in the particularly challenging environments these geographies (and economies) represent will shape the development of the drone industry. 

The continent’s test programs — and Rwanda’s performance-based drone regulations in particular — could advance beyond visual line of sight UAV technology at a quicker pace. This could set the stage for faster development of automated drone fleets for remote internet access, commercial and medical delivery, and even give Africa a lead in testing flying autonomous taxis.

“With drones, Africa is willing to take more bold steps more quickly because the benefits are there and the countries have been willing to move in a more agile manner around regulation,” said the WEF’s Reuter.

“There’s an opportunity for Africa to maintain its leadership in this space,” he said. “But the countries need to be willing to take calculated risk to enable technology companies to deploy their solutions there.”

Reuter also underscored the potential for “drone companies that originate in Africa increasingly developing services.”

There’s a case to be made this is already happening with Zipline. Though founded in California, the startup honed its UAVs and delivery model in Rwanda.

“We’re absolutely leveraging our experience built in Africa as we now test through the UAS IPP program to deliver in the U.S.,” said Zipline co-founder Keenan Wyrobek.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Google Street View cars will be roaming around the planet to check our air quality with these sensors

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Aclima, a San Francisco-based startup building Internet-connected air quality sensors has announced plans to integrate its mobile sensing platform into Google’s global fleet of Street View vehicles.

Google uses the Street View cars to map the land for Google Maps. Starting with 50 cars in Houston, Mexico City and Sydney, Aclima will capture air quality data by generating snapshots of carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), nitric oxide (NO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3), and particulate matter (PM2.5)while the Google cars roam the streets. The idea is to ascertain where there may be too much pollution and other breathing issues on a hyper local level in each metropolitan area. The data will then be made available as a public dataset on Google BigQuery.

Aclima has had a close relationship with Google for the past few years and this is not its first ride in Street View cars. The startup deployed its sensors in London earlier this year using Google’s vehicles and three years ago started working with the tech giant to ascertain air health within Google’s own campus as well as around the Bay Area.

“All that work culminated in a major scientific study,”Aclima founder Davida Herzl told TechCrunch, referring to a study published in Environmental Science and Technology revealing air pollution levels varied in difference five to eight times along a city street. “We found you can have the best air quality and the worst air quality all on the same street…Understanding that can help with everything from urban planning to understanding your personal exposure

That initial research now enables Aclima to scale up with Google’s Street View cars in the hopes of gathering even more data on a global basis. Google Street View cars cover the roads in all seven continents and have driven over 100,000 miles in just the state of California collecting over one billion data points since the initial project began with Aclima in 2015.

The first Street View cars with the updated Aclima sensors will hit the road this Fall in the Western United States, as well as in Europe, according to the company.

“These measurements can provide cities with new neighborhood-level insights to help cities accelerate efforts in their transition to smarter, healthier cities,” Karin Tuxen-Bettman, Program Manager for Google Earth Outreach said in a statement. 

News Source = techcrunch.com

Latin America is the next stage in the race for dominance in the ride-hailing market

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As the number of competitors in the ride-hailing industry dwindles, geographic expansion is emerging as the next proving ground to determine who will be the victor in the ride-hailing market.

The race for control of the industry, which is estimated by Goldman Sachs to grow eightfold to $285 billion by 2030, is escalating with China’s Didi Chuxing already surpassing Uber as the most valuable startup in the world. With a recent valuation of approximately $56 billion, compared to Uber’s $48 billion, Didi is posing a real threat to Uber’s operations and shows no signs of slowing down. Cementing its position as the top ride-hailing service in China, Didi is now turning its attention to another region of the world that is still filled with vast opportunities and not yet dominated by a single taxi alternative: Latin America.

While many ride-hailing and sharing services have already sprung up and faced regulation in cities across Latin America such as Mexico City, Montevideo, and São Paulo, the region still presents an enormous opportunity for the companies that can adapt and move fast enough.

The current opportunities in Latin America

Unlike many other regions of the world, Latin America is still very much reliant on traditional forms of public transportation such as buses, trains, and subway systems. What’s more, larger cities such as São Paulo, Mexico City, and Bogota simply cannot support any more vehicles on the road without an infrastructure overhaul. Large metro areas are already at or above maximum capacity during peak hours, making owning and commuting with a car more of a hassle than a luxury. As a result, many commuters across Latin America are putting less importance on owning a vehicle and opting to use alternative modes of transportation and on-demand services instead.

Beyond the rising demand for alternative transportation options, it’s also worth noting that Latin America is the world’s second-fastest-growing mobile market. In a region of approximately 640 million people, there are more than 200 million smartphone users. By 2020, predictions say that 63% of Latin America’s population will have access to the mobile Internet. Latin American smartphone users have quickly adopted global apps, such as Uber and Facebook. However, tech companies have yet to fully tap into the region’s potential.

Chilean taxi drivers demonstrate along Alameda Avenue against US on-demand ride service giant Uber, in Santiago, on July 10, 2017.
Uber smartphone app has faced stiff resistance from traditional taxi drivers the world over, as well as bans in some places over safety concerns and questions over legal issues, including taxes. (MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)

The key players

Uber

According to a Dalia survey, Latin Americans with smartphones that live in urban areas are the most likely to have used a ride-hailing app or site. Overall, 45% have used an app, with Mexico taking the top position in the region at 58%.

Uber entered Latin America in 2013 and claims to have more than 36 million active users in the region, proving employment for more than a million drivers. The company quickly dominated Mexico, which is now its second-largest market after the U.S. In fact, up until recently Uber claimed a near monopoly on ride-sharing in Mexico with few competitors. Uber also has operations in more than 16 Latin American countries.

99 (formerly 99Taxis)

With an urban population of approximately 180 million, Brazil is the ultimate prize for ride-hailing and taxi companies with several services competing for market share. Most notably, 99 (formerly “99Taxis”) was able to gain momentum early on with exclusive services that extended beyond basic ride-hailing (such as its 99 TOP and 99 POP services) and better tools for its drivers.

With over 200,000 drivers and 14 million users, 99 attracted the attention of investors worldwide, including that of China’s Didi Chuxing. Didi invested $100 million into 99 in January 2018 before acquiring 99 entirely months later for nearly $1 billion to take on Uber in Latin America, shortly after it acquired Uber’s operations in China.

Easy Taxi

Rocket Internet -backed taxi booking service, Easy Taxi, started in Latin America in 2011, two years after Uber first started in San Francisco. The company provides an easy way to book a taxi and track it in real-time. Today, the company is owned by Maxi Mobility, which acquired the company from Rocket Internet in 2017 for an undisclosed amount. Maxi Mobility also owns Cabify, and operates across many Latin American markets, including Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, Panama, Brazil, Peru, and Chile, in addition to a handful of markets elsewhere.

To solidify its position in the region, Easy Taxi merged with Colombian taxi-booking app Tappsi in 2015. Tappsi launched in Bogotá in 2012 and was doing quite well in the Colombian market. The merger allowed the companies to pool their resources just as other competitors, such as Uber, began entering the region.

Easy Taxi maintains impressive traction, raising more than $75 million to date. But as the ride-hailing battle in Latin America pushes forward, the company is rumored to be a likely investment or acquisition target for Uber, Didi, or the largest global investor in this space, Softbank.

Cabify

Cabify is a Spanish company that provides private vehicles for hire via its smartphone app. Although founded in Madrid, Cabify has always positioned itself as a Latin American company, investing heavily across the region. The company was able to gain a strong foothold due to some significant funding raised by its parent company, Maxi Mobility. In January 2018, Maxi Mobility raised another $160 million and said the funding would be used to accelerate both of its companies, Cabify and Easy Taxi, in the 130 cities where they operate throughout Spain, Portugal, and Latin America.

Cabify reported it has over 13 million users and grew its installed-base by 500% between 2016 and 2017, tripling its user base and fulfilling six times more trips in 2017.

Cabify competes directly with Uber, 99, and Easy Taxi in Brazil; however, it reportedly has around 40% market share in Sao Pãolo, one of the largest cities in all of Latin America.

Smaller players to watch

Beat (Formerly Taxibeat)

Beat is a profitable ride-hailing service founded in Athens, Greece that also operates in Peru. Beat is slowly expanding its operations across Latin America, though expansion appears to be limited to Chile for now.

As of January 2017, Beat had around 15,000 drivers and 800,000 customers in Peru.

Nekso

Toronto-based Nekso bet on the Latin American taxi-hailing market before its home market with a pilot launch in Venezuela in 2016. Nekso was able to gain acceptance from the taxi industries in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Panama with its slightly different approach to ride-hailing.

The company connects a network of 550+ licensed taxi companies with thousands of drivers and allows users to flag down a cab off the street and without using in-app requests. Nekso also uses artificial intelligence technology to offer drivers real-time updates on weather, events, and traffic data to predict areas of a city which may need more drivers. The company claims taxi drivers can spend up to two-thirds of their day looking for or waiting for riders and that Nekso technology helps drivers increase their daily rides by more than 25% percent.

At the end of 2017, Nekso boasted around 150,000 users and facilitated approximately 400,000 rides per month. Now, the company plans to make its debut in Canada as well as expand to more countries in South America, including Argentina, Colombia, Chile, and Peru.

Didi, 99, and the next phase

99’s new owner, Didi, which dominates the Asian market and was able to defeat Uber in China, has big plans for international expansion. Its acquisition of 99 reveals the potential it sees in Latin America but also adds to the complicated web of global ride-hailing services.

After Didi shut down and acquired Uber’s assets in China, it also bought a stake in Uber for $1 billion. Uber, Didi, and 99 are all backed by Softbank. However, everywhere outside of China, Didi and Uber are competing with each other. Didi’s full plans for 99 are not yet obvious, but the company has already set up an office in Mexico and begun poaching staff from Uber in Mexico.

With an infusion of capital, Latin America’s ride-hailing industry is multiplying. That said, companies that want to compete in the region will need to use an aggressive and strategic approach that can withstand the uniqueness of commuters and transportation options in the region. It’s only a matter of time until we see if these companies continue ramping up their operations for geographic domination, or if we see more and more partner up to advance their technologies and address other looming threats – such as bike sharing, scooter sharing, and even autonomous vehicles.

Two of the founders of 99, who sold their company to Didi, have already launched a dockless bike sharing startup called Yellow in Brazil and raised $9 million to grow its operations. No other scooter company has taken the plunge into Latin America yet besides Grin Scooters in Mexico City, but other larger cities such as Buenos Aires, Bogota, Santiago, and Lima would be ideal markets if the companies can figure out pricing as well as security and safety issues first.

Didi’s activity in Brazil and Mexico is sure to trigger a new wave of competition between existing ride-hailing players and create an even more tangled web of alliances and acquisitions. Whether or not these companies can adapt and move fast enough to rise to the top, and deal with the other looming alternative modes of transportation, remains to be seen.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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