The investment arms of BMW and the Chinese search technology giant, Baidu, along with a large original equipment manufacturer for the auto industry and a slew of technology investors have all come together to back Lunewave, a startup developing new sensor technologies for autonomous vehicles.
The $5 million seed round which the company just closed will serve as a launching pad to get its novel radar technology, based on the concept of a Luneburg antenna, to market.
First developed in the 1940s, Lunewave’s spin the antenna technology involves leveraging 3D printing to create new architectures that enable more powerful antennas with greater range and accuracy than the sensing technologies currently on the market, according to the company’s chief executive John Xin.
Lunewave was co-founded by brothers John and Hao Xin and is based off of research that Hao had been conducting as a professor at the University of Arizona. Hao previously spent years working in the defense community for companies like Raytheon and Rockwell Scientific after graduating with a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000.
Younger brother John took a more entrepreneurial approach, working in consulting and financial services for companies like PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Liberty Mutual.
Lunewave represents the culmination of nine years of research the elder Xin spent at the University of Arizona applying 3D printing to boost the power of the Luneburg antenna. With so much intellectual firepower behind it, Hao was able to convince his younger brother to join him on the entrepreneurial journey.
“He has a strong desire to commercialize his inventions,” John Xin said of his older brother. “He wants to see it in everyday life.”
Image courtesy of Driving-Tests.org
Now the company has $5 million in new funding to take the technology that Hao Xin has dedicated so much time and effort to develop and bring it to market.
“With a single 3D printer in the laboratory version we can produce 100 per day,” John Xin told me. “With an industrial printer you can print 1000 per day.”
The first market for the company’s new technology will be autonomous vehicles — and more specifically autonomous cars.
Lunewave is focused on the eyes of the vehicle, says John Xin. Currently, autonomous technologies rely on a few different sensing systems. There are LIDAR technologies which use lasers to illuminate a target and measure the reflected pulses with a sensor; camera technologies which rely on — well — camera technologies; and radar which uses electromagnetic waves to detect objects.
Startups developing and refining these technologies have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to tackle the autonomous vehicle market. In June, the camera sensing technology developer Light raised over $120 million from SoftBank. Meanwhile, LIDAR technology developers like Quanergy and Leddartech have raised $134 million and $117 million respectively and some studies have claimed that the market for LIDAR technologies was already a $5.2 billion last year alone.
Most companies working with autonomous cars these days use some combination of these technologies, but the existing products on the market have significant limitations, according to Lunewave’s chief executive.
John Xin argues that the Lunewave technology can detect more objects in a wider field of view and at greater distances than existing products thanks to the unique properties of the Luneburg antenna.
Think of the antenna as a giant golf ball with a 360 field of “view” that can detect objects at greater distances than existing Lidar technologies because of the distance constraints on laser technologies.
Xin with a Lunewave prototype
“LIDAR right now is at the end of the day because of its short wavelength. It does not function as well in poor weather conditions. Penetration of shorter wave lengths would be very difficult in poor weather conditions,” Xin said. “Our radar technology has the ability to function across all weather conditions. Our hardware architecture of our Lunenberg antenna has the best distance and the spherical nature of the device has the 360 detection capacity.”
The company came out with its minimum viable product in 2017 — the same year that it launched. It was one of the early companies in the UrbanX accelerator — a collaboration between Mini and Urban.us — and is part of BMW’s startup garage program.
The company raised $5 million in two structures. Its seed financing was a $3.75 million equity round led by the automotive investment specialist McCombs Fraser with participation from Ekistic Ventures, Urban.us, Plug and Play, Shanda Capital, Lighthouse Ventures, Baidu Ventures and BMW iVentures. But a portion of its capital came in the form of a $1.25 million non-dilutive government grant through the National Science Foundation . “In late 2016 that’s what helped us to jumpstart the company,” said Xin.
Now, the company just needs to fulfill Hao Xin’s dream of taking the product to market.
“We have the product,” John Xin said. “It’s not just taking in money. Now it’s about [proof of concepts] and pilots.”
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.
Zortrax has launched a new printer, the Inkspire, that prints using an LCD to create objects in high-quality resin in minutes. The printer – essentially an upgrade to traditional stereolithography (SLA) printers – uses a single frame of light to create layers of 25 microns.
Most SLA printers use a laser or DLP to shine a pattern on the resin. The light hardens the resin instantly, creating a layer of material that the printer then pulls up and out as the object grows. The UV LCD in the $2,699 Inkspire throws an entire layer at a time and is nine times more precise than standard SLA systems. It can print 20 to 36 millimeters per hour and the system can print objects in serial, allowing you to to print hundreds of thousands of small objects per month.
“The printer is also perfect for rapid prototyping of tiny yet incredibly detailed products like jewelry or dental prostheses. But there are more possible applications,” said co-founder Marcin Olchanowski. “Working with relatively small models like HDMI cover caps, one Zortrax Inkspire can 3D print 77 of them in 1h 30min. 30 printers working together in a 3D printing farm can offer an approximate monthly output of 360,000 to over 500,000 parts (depending on how many shifts per day are scheduled). This is how Zortrax Inkspire can take a business way into medium or even high scale production territory.”
The printer company, which is now one of the largest in Central Europe, explored multiple technologies before settling on this form of SLA printing.
“At the early stage of this project we were investigating the technology itself, and it seemed very unlikely we were able to create such a device,” said Olchanowski. “We tried SLA and DLP but we were not happy with these technologies. We perceived them undeveloped. But, step by step, we succeeded. We see huge prospects of development for resin 3D printing technology, because nowadays customers expect the higher quality of printed models.”
The company sells 6,500 printers yearly and will see $13.7 million in revenue this year. They are also selling resins for their new printers and they will ship in about two months.
Printers like the Inkspire are a bit harder to use than traditional extruder-based printers like Makerbots. However, the quality and print speed is far better and paves the way to truly 3D-printed production runs for one-off parts.
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 firmGLOBEHE 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 companyUnifly and U.S. delivery drone manufacturerVayu, 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.
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.
The San Francisco-based robotics company — that also manufactures its own UAVs — was one of the earliest drone partners of the government of Rwanda.
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 programin 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 operatebeyond 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 (seeJD.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 advancebeyond 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.
Elvie, a Berlin-based startup known best for its connected Kegel trainer is jumping into the breast pump business with a new $480 hands-free system you can slip into your bra.
Even with all the innovation in baby gear, breast pumps have mostly sucked (pun intended) for new moms for the past half a century. My first experience with a pump required me to stay near a wall socket and hunch over for a good twenty to thirty minutes for fear the milk collected might spill all over the place (which it did anyway, frequently). It was awful!
Next I tried the Willow Pump, an egg-shaped, connected pump meant to liberate women everywhere with its small and mobile design. It received glowing reviews, though my experience with it was less than stellar.
The proprietary bags were hard to fit in the device, filled up with air, cost 50 cents each (on top of the $500 pump that insurance did not cover), wasted many a golden drop of precious milk in the transfer and I had to reconfigure placement several times before it would start working. So I’ve been tentatively excited about the announcement of Elvie’s new cordless (and silent??) double breast pump.
Displayed: a single Elive pump with accompanying app.
Elvie tells TechCrunch its aim all along has been to make health tech for women and that it has been working on this pump for the past three years.
The Elvie Pump is a cordless, hands-free, closed system, rechargeable electric pump designed by former Dyson engineers. It can hold up to 5 oz from each breast in a single use.
It’s most obvious and direct competition is the Willow pump, another “wearable” pump moms can put right in their bra and walk around in, hands free. However, unlike the Willow, Elvie’s pump does not need proprietary bags. You just pump right into the device and the pump’s smartphone app will tell you when each side is full.
It’s also half the size and weight of a Willow and saves every precious drop it can by pumping right into the attached bottle so you just pump and feed (no more donut-shaped bags you have to cut open and awkwardly pour into a bottle).
On top of that, Elvie claims this pump is silent. No more loud suction noise off and on while trying to pump in a quiet room in the office or elsewhere. It’s small, easy to carry around and you can wear it under your clothes without it making a peep! While the Willow pump claims to be quiet — and it is, compared to other systems –you can still very much hear it while you are pumping.
Elvie’s connected breast pump app
All of these features sound fantastic to this new (and currently pumping) mom. I remember in the early days of my baby’s life wanting to go places but feeling stuck. I was chained to not just all the baby gear, hormonal shifts and worries about my newborn but to the pump and feed schedule itself, which made it next to impossible to leave the house for the first few months.
My baby was one of those “gourmet eaters” who just nursed and nursed all day. There were days I couldn’t leave the bed! Having a silent, no mess, hands-free device that fit right in my bra would have made a world of difference.
However, I mentioned the word “tentatively” above as I have not had a chance to do a hands-on review of Elvie’s pump. The Willow pump also seemed to hold a lot of promise early on, yet left me disappointed.
To be fair, the company’s customer service team was top-notch and did try to address my concerns. I even went through two “coaching” sessions but in the end it seemed the blame was put on me for not getting their device to work correctly. That’s a bad user experience if you are blaming others for your design flaws, especially new and struggling moms.
Both companies are founded by women and make products for women — and it’s about time. But it seems as if Elvie has taken note of the good and bad in their competitors and had time to improve upon it — and that’s what has me excited.
As my fellow TechCrunch writer Natasha put it in her initial review of Elvie as a company, “It’s not hyperbole to say Elvie is a new breed of connected device. It’s indicative of the lack of smart technology specifically — and intelligently — addressing women.”
So why the pump? “We recognized the opportunity [in the market] was smarter tech for women,” Boler told TechCrunch on her company’s move into the breast pump space. “Our aim is to transform the way women think and feel about themselves by providing the tools to address the issues that matter most to them, and Elvie Pump does just that.”
The Elvie Pump comes in three sizes and shapes to fit the majority of breasts and, in case you want to check your latch or pump volume, also has transparent nipple shields with markings to help guide the nipple to the right spot.
The app connects to each device via Bluetooth and tracks your production, detects let down, will pause when full and is equipped to pump in seven different modes.
The pump retails for $480 and is currently available in the U.K. However, those in the U.S. will have to wait till closer to the end of the year to get their hands on one. According to the company, It will be available on Elvie.com and Amazon.com, as well in select physical retail stores nationally later this year, pending FDA approval.