Volocopter reveals its first commercial aircraft, the VoloCity air taxi

VoloCity takes off into nightIt’s a race to the skies in terms of which company actually deploys an on-demand air taxi service based around electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft – for its part, German startup Volocopter is taking another key step with the revelation of its first aircraft designed for actual commercial use, the VoloCity.

The VoloCity is the fourth-generation eVTOL vehicle that Volocopter has created, but the first three were created for testing and demonstration purposes, and have flown over 1,000 times in service of that goal. The VoloCity, an 18-rotor VTOL with a range of around 35 km (just under 22 miles) and a top speed of about 70 mph, is designed for transporting up to two people, including light luggage like backpacks, briefcases or purses.

VoloCity Top

Volocopter has paid close attention to safety and comfort with this design, meeting the safety standards set by the European Aviation Sfey Agency, and including a new stabilizer that hasn’t been a part of the test aircraft, in rod to provide more stability during flight.

Now, Voloctoper says it’s turning its attention to infrastructure and ecosystem development, which includes establishing its ‘VoloPorts’ for take-off and landing, as well as working with cities on air traffic control. The company says it’s meeting already with global operators that serve this purpose, including Fraport, which runs the Frankfurt International Airport.

As for when VoloCity moves from render to reality, Volocopter says that it’s targeting a first public test flight for Q4 of this year in Singapore, where it’ll also show off the prototype of first first VoloPort, pictured in concept images below.

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Watch live as NASA astronauts spacewalk to install a new automated docking ring on the ISS

NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Andrew Morgan are setting out today to perform the installation of a new International Docking Adapter (IDA) on the International Space Station that will provide another way for futuer crew craft flown by commercial providers to bring astronauts to the orbital research platform.

This is the second IDA to be installed in the ISS, and the actual spacewalk itself is set to happen at 8:20 AM ET, with astronauts spending the time until then getting all suited up. This docking adapter came up on SpaceX’s CRS-18 resupply mission, which went up in July. The adapter will provide automated docking procedures for a number of future crew spacecraft, including Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Crew Dragon, and it’s a standard that’s intended to be used with any other commercial craft to be developed with the aim of reaching the ISS in future, too.

The two IDAs and their use are a big part of NASA’s plan to commercialize the ISS and essentially open the platform for business, with the aim of gaining private sector support for both its use and the development of an eventual successor, since the existing ISS is actually quite a bit past its intended mission lifespan.

NASA confirms mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa to explore its icy oceans

NASA has confirmed a mission to Europa, one of the Moons of Jupiter, will indeed happen. The mission was initially explored starting in 2017, with the space agency looking for reports on how it might proceed, and now NASA has said it will go ahead and move to the key stop of finalizing mission design, which will then lead to actually building the spacecraft that will make the trip, and the science payload it’ll carry on board.

The goal of the mission, which is codenamed ‘Europa Clipper,’ is to find out whether the icy natural satellite orbiting Jupiter could sustain life, and also explore whether it might be colonizable or habitable. Plus, we’ll definitely learn a lot more about Europa with an up-close-and-personal exploration.

Europa is the one of 79 known moons orbiting the gas giant, and is the six-largest in the entire solar system. It’s a bit smaller than our own, and has a crust that is composed primarily of water ice. Some scientists believe that it could have a water ocean just underneath that ice curst, however, and that if said ocean exists, it might be among the likelier places in our solar system to find life.

NASA’s goal for this mission is to launch it as early as 2023, though it’ll need its SLS launch system to be ready to make that happen. The extended timeline allows for a launch-ready state by 2025, which seems a bit more realistic given the current state of affairs.

MIT develops a sensor that can work underwater without a battery and send back data

MIT researchers have created a new underwater sensor and communication system that doesn’t require batteries, and barely uses any power at all. This could help set up an underwater Internet of Things, according to MIT, which would allow for real-time sea temperature and marine life monitoring, without requiring regular equipment and power swaps to make it work. Without that requirement, it would even be possible to set up networks of underwater sensors in the seas of distant planets.

The system, devised by MIT researchers, uses a transmitter that sends out sound waves underwater, which then hit sensors with embedded receivers, transmitting a tiny amount of energy in the process. The sensor then either uses that energy to answer back — or doesn’t, which corresponds to either a 1 or a 0, meaning it can effectively communicate in binary. The only energy required for this to work is the power stored in the sound wave sent by the transmitter.

The inspiration for devising this system came from a somewhat unlikely source: Fadel Adib, an assistant professor in the MIT Media Lab and one of the researchers who worked on the project, was watching nature doc “Blue Planet” and thought about how much of the Earth’s oceans are left unstudied, and also about how the solution for that can’t be battery-powered sensors as that could result in a lot of excess pollution.

Essentially, the system works by allowing piezoelectric resonators, which have been used in things like microphones for well over 100 years, to either deform in response to a sound wave, or retain their shape and reflect, based on information contained in any kind of sensor you might want to pair with the piezoelectric material. That sends back the binary signal, which can then be collected and interpreted.

Next up for the research team is to show that this can work at longer distances, and in concert with other sensors for simultaneous transmission. Eventually, it might even be able to transmit sound and even low-res images, which would be a huge development in terms of establishing remote monitoring stations — especially as we pursue more science and research on worlds not our own.

ULA tapped to launch Astrobotic’s lunar lander to the Moon in 2021

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) has been chosen to launch the lunar lander of one of the companies chosen by NASA for its commercial lunar payload program. ULA will deliver Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander to the Moon in 2021, the companies announced today.

Peregrine will fly aboard ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, taking off from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral, and this will act as one of two required certification flights that ULA must do in order to qualify for USAF missions with the Vulcan Centaur.

Vulcan is ULA’s next-generation heavy lift launch vehicle, which is currently in development. The launch vehicle will inherit some technology from the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, but the booster will be powered by Blue Origin BE-4 engines, and it’ll be able to carry larger payloads than either Atlas V or Delta IV Heavy.

Astrobotic has been chosen by NASA as one of its commercial payload providers for its ambitious program to return to the Moon and eventually establish a colony. The company has already signed up 16 customers for delivery on its first Moon mission, it said in a press release, which it will log onto the Peregrine, which can support up to 90kg (nearly 200 lbs) for its first mission.

NASA recently opened up a call for more companies to join Astrobotic and the eight other providers it chose last November for its lunar commercial payload program. These will all need launch providers, which represents more potential business for ULA, SpaceX and others looking to develop and launch vehicles capable of getting payloads to the Moon.

RYU’s line of backpacks offer style and function for exploring the city or weekends away

Yes, it’s Bag Week, where we celebrate all the best bags of the year here at TechCrunch. And there is little more satisfying than finding a basic black one that’s functional, stylish and unique. Luckily, Canadian urban athletic apparel maker RYU makes three such bags, and while each one has its own particular appeal depending on what you’re looking for in a backpack, they’re also all winners that elevate the basic black backpack to new heights.

Quick Pack Lux 18L ($185)

RYU bags 3 Locker Pack 18LRYU’s “just right” offering for me is the Quick Pack Lux 18L capacity bag that’s pretty much perfect as a general-use day pack in terms of cargo space, and that can also serve well for a one or two-night trip, depending on how lightly you pack.

The RYU’s signature feature, and what makes it my favorite day pack in terms of everyday use around the city, is its profile — a silhouette that is made all the better because RYU uses an internal molded shell to ensure that it never flattens down or loses its shape, regardless of how full or empty the bag actually is. This is actually a huge selling point for me, and one that makes the RYU Quick Pack Lux 18L almost certain to become my go-to daily bag. Inside, there are a few pockets, including a laptop sleeve that can fit up to a 15-inch MacBook Pro — another rarity in a day pack this low-profile.

In addition to the integrated frame, the Quick Pack Lux is kitted out with premium materials, like the leather accent patch on the top flap, leather shoulder straps, an outer layer of poly-cotton blend that covers a wax-treated canvas and nylon interior for water resistance and durability. The materials definitely feel premium, though the outermost layer resembles kind of a yoga pant material, and in my house definitely attracts and picks up my dog’s easily shed white hairs with reckless abandon. I’m more than happy to get out the lint roller once and a while as a trade-off for just how good looking the bag is, however.

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It wears slightly long, but tight to the back (for reference when sizing up the photos above, I’m 6’2″ and quite a bit of that is torso). The removable chest strap helps keeps the profile pretty seamless, and there’s a handle on top for easy carrying when not on the back.

Another unique feature of the Quick Pack Lux is that it opens from the front, with the flap at the top unbuckling to reveal two zippers that run the length of the bag. Undo these, and you get basically a duffel-style cargo loading method, which is great for arranging your stuff without having to layer or dig down as you would in a top-loading pack.

Locker Pack Lux 24L ($215)

RYU bags 2 Locker Pack 24L 1The Locker Pack Lux 24L is the more spacious version of the Quick Pack Lux, with 6L extra volume for packing your gear. It’s designed more for those overnights or two-day trips, and yet it doesn’t really add that much in the way of bulk if you’re looking for something that can serve flexibly as both day pack and weekender.

The Locker Pack Lux has the same materials combination as the Quick Pack, but is a bit longer and so is probably better suited for taller people. It still offers a very slim profile, and has the same internal structural components, which means it’ll keep its shape, but it has a bit more leeway for expansion, too, letting you pack in a surprising amount of stuff via the front-loading, double zipper stowage and packing flap.

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Unlike the Quick Pack Lux, you also get external access to the laptop compartment in the Locker Pack, which gives you an easy way to get at up to a 15-inch notebook. The leather-accented top flap closes down over this compartment, too, to give you some protection against the elements in the case of light showers (RYU also sells a dedicated rain hood separately).

Express Pack 15L ($90)

RYU bags 4 Express Pack 15L

The Express Pack is the smallest of these RYU backpacks in terms of packing volume, but it’s also probably the best option when it comes to an all-around city day pack that will fit you regardless of height and frame. The extremely minimal aesthetic is great for the city, especially with the polyurethane outer coating that wraps a middle canvas layer for the bag’s body.

This is a very lightweight bag, but the internal pocket can actually fit a lot of stuff when needed, and there’s a single woven pocket on one side of the exterior for stowing a water bottle. This adds an asymmetrical look, which is also pretty cool looking. Inside, there’s a zippered mesh block and a fully zippered front pocket for separating your sweaty gym gear, plus a laptop compartment that can fit a full, 15-inch MacBook Pro without issue.

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The bag is comfortable to wear, but doesn’t have the internal structure of the other two, so if it’s empty it’ll hug a lot closer to the body. If there’s one thing I’d change about it, it’s the RYU branding — but it does actually recede to being barely visible in less direct lighting, and is more subtle overall than it looks here.

Overall, RYU’s bag lineup is impressive, and offers something for everyone. The Vancouver-based company has done a great job of delivering highly functional designs that also offer great style with pretty much universal appeal. The company also offers non-Lux versions of both the Quick Pack and the Locker Pack, which drop the leather accents and embedded waxed canvas, but which also offer some decent discounts if the prices above strike you as too high.

MIT built a better way to deliver high-quality video streams to multiple devices at once

Image via Getty Images / aurielaki

Depending on your connection and the size of your household, video streaming can get downright post-apocalyptic – bandwidth is the key resource, and everyone is fighting to get the most and avoid a nasty, pixelated picture. But a new way to control how bandwidth is distributed across multiple, simultaneous streams could mean peace across the land – even when a ton of devices are sharing the same connection and all streaming video at the same time.

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab created a system they call ‘Minerva’ that minimizes stutters due to buffering, and pixelation due to downgraded stream, which it believes could have huge potential benefits for streaming services like Netflix and Hulu that increasingly serve multiple members of a household at once. The underlying technology could be applied to larger areas, too, extending beyond the houseful and into neighbourhoods or even whole regions to mitigate the effects of less than idea streaming conditions.

Minerva works by taking into account the varying needs of different delivery devices streaming on a network – so it doesn’t treat a 4K Apple TV the same as an older smartphone with a display that can’t even show full HD output, for instance. It also considers the nature of the content, , which is important because live action sports require a heck of a lot more bandwidth to display in high quality when compared to say, an animated children’s TV show.

Video is then served to viewers based on its actual needs, instead of just being allocated more or less evenly across devices, and the Minerva system continually optimizes delivery speeds in accordance with their changing needs as the stream continues.

In real-world testing, Minerva as able to provide a quality cup equivalent to going from 720p to 1080p as much as a third of the time, and eliminated the need for rebuffing by almost 50 percent, which is a massive improvement when it comes to actually being able to seamlessly stream video content continuously. Plus, it can do all this without requiring any fundamental changes to network infrastructure, meaning a streaming provider could roll it out without having to require any changes on the part of users.

Disney+ comes to Canada and the Netherlands on Nov. 12, will support nearly all major platforms at launch

Disney+ will have an international launch that begins at the same time as its rollout in the U.S., Disney revealed. The company will be launching its digital streaming service on November 12 in Canada and The Netherlands on November 12, and will be coming to Australia and New Zealand the following week. The streaming service will also support virtually every device and operating system from day one.

Disney+ will be available on iOS, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Android, Android TV, PlayStation 4, Roku, and Xbox One at launch, which is pretty much an exhaustive list of everywhere someone might want to watch it, leaving aside some smaller proprietary smart TV systems. That, combined with the day-and-date global markets, should be a clear indicator that Disney wants its service to be available to as many customers as possible, as quickly as possible.

Through Apple’s iPhone, iPad and Apple TV devices, customers will be able to subscribe via in-app purchase. Disney+ will also be fully integrated with Apple’s TV app, which is getting an update in iOS 13 in hopes of becoming even more useful as a central hub for all a user’s video content. The one notable exception on the list of supported devices and platforms is Amazon’s Fire TV, which could change closer to launch depending on negotiations.

In terms of pricing, the service will run $8.99 per month or $89.99 per year in Canada, and €6.99 per month (or €69.99 per year) in the Netherlands. In Australia, it’ll be $8.99 per month or $89.99 per year, and in New Zealand, it’ll be $9.99 and $99.99 per year. All prices are in local currency.

That compares pretty well with the $6.99 per month (or $69.99 yearly) asking price in the U.S., and undercuts the Netflix pricing in those markets, too. This is just the Disney+ service on its own, however, not the combined bundle that includes ESPN Plus and Hulu for $12.99 per month, which is probably more comparable to Netflix in terms of breadth of content offering.

 

Rocket Lab successfully launches rideshare rocket with two experimental USAF satellites on board

Rocket Lab has successfully launched its eight mission, an Electron rocket rideshare flight carrying four satellites to orbit for various clients. The Electron launched from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, at 12:12 AM NZST (8:12 AM ET). This was its second attempt, after a scrub last week due to adverse weather conditions on the launch range.

On board, it carried a rideshare mission from launch services provider Spaceflight, which works to bring together payloads to simplify the process of finding a provider for smaller payloads and companies. The Spaceflight portion of the payload included three satellites: One satellite from BlackSky, which does Earth-imaging, and which will join its twin launched by Rocket Lab in June already in low-Earth orbit to form a constellation.

Spaceflight’s cargo also included two experimental satellites launched by the U.S. Air Force Space Command, which will carry out tests of new technology related to spacecraft propulsion, power, communications and more, and which are designed to pave the way for deployment of related technologies in future spacecraft.

There’s also a fourth satellite on board, a CubeSat that will be the anchor for a new constellation aimed at providing up-to-date and accurate monitoring of maritime traffic, operated by Unseenlabs.

Rocket Lab’s New Zealand LC-1 will be joined by a second launch site in Virginia, to provide a U.S.-based complimentary launch site for serving customers on a monthly basis.

The company also plans to eventually make its Electron rockets reusable, even though they were originally intended as fully expendable launch vehicles, using a recovery process that involves catching returning rockets mid-air after they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Today’s launch included a test of recovery equipment for the Electron’s first stage – an initial test that aimed to have the rocket land back in the Pacific via parachute, where Rocket Lab will attempt to pick it up from the ocean for potential refurbishment.

Minecraft to get big lighting, shadow and color upgrades through Nvidia ray tracing

Minecraft is getting a free update that brings much-improved lighting and color to the game’s blocky graphics using real-time ray tracing running on Nvidia GeForce RTX graphics hardware. The new look is a dramatic change in the atmospherics of the game, and manages to be eerily realistic while retaining Minecraft’s pixelated charm.

The ray tracing tech will be available via a free update to the game on Windows 10 PCs, but it’ll only be accessible to players using an Nvidia GeForce RTX GPU, since that’s the only graphics hardware on the market that currently supports playing games with real-time ray tracing active.

It sounds like it’ll be an excellent addition to the experience for players who are equipped with the right hardware, however – including lighting effects not only from the sun, but also from in-game materials like glowstone and lava; both hard and soft shadows depending on transparency of material and angle of light refraction; and accurate reflections in surfaces that are supposed to be reflective (ie. gold blocks, for instance).

This is welcome news after Minecraft developer Mojang announced last week that it cancelled plans to release its Super Duper Graphics Pack, which was going to add a bunch of improved visuals to the game, because it wouldn’t work well across platforms. At the time, Mojang said it would be sharing news about graphics optimization for some platforms “very soon,” and it looks like this is what they had in mind.

Nvidia meanwhile is showing off a range of 2019 games with real-time ray tracing enabled at Gamescom 2019 in Cologne, Germany, including Dying Light 2, Cyperpunk 2077, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Watch Dogs: Legion.

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