Facebook is being leaned on by US, UK, Australia to ditch its end-to-end encryption expansion plan

Here we go again. Western governments are once again dialing up their attack on end-to-end encryption — calling for either no e2e encryption or backdoored e2e encryption so platforms can be commanded to serve state agents with messaging data in “a readable and usable format.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel and Australia’s minister for home affairs, Peter Dutton, have co-signed an open letter to Facebook calling on the company to halt its plan to roll out e2e encryption across its suite of messaging products. Unless the company can ensure what they describe as “no reduction to user safety and without including a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens,” per a draft of the letter obtained by BuzzFeed ahead of publication later today.

If platforms have e2e encryption, a “means for lawful access” to the content of communications sums to a backdoor in the crypto — presumably along the lines of the “ghost protocol” that U.K. spooks have been pushing for the past year. AKA an “exceptional access mechanism” that would require platforms CC’ing a state/law enforcement agent as a silent listener to eavesdrop on a conversation on warranted request.

Facebook -owned WhatsApp was one of a number of tech giants joining an international coalition of civic society organizations, security and policy experts condemning the proposal as utter folly earlier this year.

The group warned that demanding a special security hole in encryption for law enforcement risks everyone’s security by creating a vulnerability which could be exploited by hackers. Or indeed, service providers themselves. But the age-old “there’s no such thing as a backdoor just for you” warning appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

In their open letter to Facebook, the officials write: “Companies should not deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content, even for preventing or investigating the most serious crimes. This puts our citizens and societies at risk by severely eroding a company’s ability to detect and respond to illegal content and activity, such as child sexual exploitation and abuse, terrorism, and foreign adversaries’ attempts to undermine democratic values and institutions, preventing the prosecution of offenders and safeguarding of victims. It also impedes law enforcement’s ability to investigate these and other serious crimes.”

Of course, Facebook is not the only messaging company using e2e encryption, but it’s in the governments’ crosshairs now on account of a plan to expand its use of e2e crypto — announced earlier this year, as part of a claimed “pivot to privacy.” And, well, on account of it having two billion+ users.

The officials claim in the letter that “much” of the investigative activity, which is critical to protecting child safety and fighting terrorism, “will no longer be possible if Facebook implements its proposals as planned.”

“Risks to public safety from Facebook’s proposals are exacerbated in the context of a single platform that would combine inaccessible messaging services with open profiles, providing unique routes for prospective offenders to identify and groom our children,” they warn, noting that the Facebook founder expressed his own concerns about finding “the right ways to protect both privacy and safety.”

In March, Mark Zuckerberg also talked about building “the appropriate safety systems that stop bad actors as much as we possibly can within the limits of an encrypted service.”

Which could, if you’re cynically inclined, be read as Facebook dangling a carrot to governments — along the lines of: “We might be able to scratch your security itch, if your regulators don’t break up our business.”

Ironically enough, the high-profile intervention by officials risks derailing Facebook’s plan to unify the backends of its platforms — widely interpreted as a play to make it harder for regulators to act on competition concerns and break up Facebook’s business empire along messaging product lines: Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram.

Or, well — alternative scenario — Facebook could choose to strip e2e crypto from WhatsApp, which is currently the odd one out in its messaging suite on account of having proper crypto. Governments would sure be happy if it did that. But it’s the opposite of what Zuckerberg has said he’s planning.

Curiously, the draft letter makes no mention of platform metadata. Which is not shielded by even WhatsApp’s e2e encryption. And thus can be extracted — via a warrant — in a readable format for legit investigative purposes. And let’s not forget U.S. spooks are more than happy to kill people based on metadata.

Instead the officials write: “We must find a way to balance the need to secure data with public safety and the need for law enforcement to access the information they need to safeguard the public, investigate crimes, and prevent future criminal activity. Not doing so hinders our law enforcement agencies’ ability to stop criminals and abusers in their tracks.”

The debate is being framed by spooks and security ministers as all about content.

Yet a scrambled single Facebook backend would undoubtedly yield vastly more metadata, and higher-resolution metadata, on account of triangulation across the services. So it really is a curious omission.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for its reaction to the letter. BuzzFeed reports that it sent a statement in which it strongly opposes government attempts to build backdoors. So if Facebook holds firm to that stance it looks like another big crypto fight could well be brewing. À la Apple versus the FBI.

Update: Facebook has now sent us this statement:

We believe people have the right to have a private conversation online, wherever they are in the world. As the US and UK governments acknowledge, the CLOUD Act allows for companies to provide available information when they receive valid legal requests and does not require companies to build backdoors.

We respect and support the role law enforcement has in keeping people safe. Ahead of our plans to bring more security and privacy to our messaging apps, we are consulting closely with child safety experts, governments and technology companies and devoting new teams and sophisticated technology so we can use all the information available to us to help keep people safe.

End-to-end encryption already protects the messages of over a billion people every day. It is increasingly used across the communications industry and in many other important sectors of the economy. We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere.

Bilateral Data Access Agreement

In another announcement being made today, the U.K. and the U.S. have signed a “world first” Bilateral Data Access Agreement that’s intended to greatly speed up electronic data access requests by their respective law enforcement agencies.

The agreement is intended to replace the current process, which sees requests for communications data from law enforcement agencies submitted and approved by central governments via a process called Mutual Legal Assistance — which can take months or even years.

Once up and running, the claim is the new arrangement will see the process reduced to a matter of weeks or even days.

The agreement will work reciprocally with the U.K. getting data from U.S. tech firms, and the U.S. getting access from U.K. communication service providers (via a U.S. court order).

Any request for data must be made under an authorisation in accordance with the legislation of the country making the request and will be subject to independent oversight or review by a court, judge, magistrate or other independent authority, per the announcement.

The U.K. also says specifically that it has obtained “assurances” which are in line with the government’s continued opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances. Which is only mildly reassuring given the home secretary’s previous views on the topic.

The announcement also makes a point of noting the data access agreement does not change anything about how companies can use encryption — nor prevent them from encrypting data.

For interfering with proper encryption the plan among this trio of signals intelligence allies is, seemingly, to reach for the old PR lever and apply public pressure. So, yeah, here we go again.

Salesforce is building an office tower in Sydney, pledging 1,000 new jobs in the next five years

Salesforce announced this week that it’s building another shiny tower. This one will be in Sydney with views of the harbor and the iconic Sydney Opera House. The company has also committed to adding 1,000 new jobs in the next five years and to building the tower in a sustainable fashion.

In fact, Salesforce is pledging the new tower will be one of the greenest buildings in the country when they are finished. “The building has achieved Sydney’s first-ever WELL core and shell Platinum pre-certification, the highest obtainable pre-certification, and will achieve a 6 Star Green Star Design and As-Built rating, representing world excellence in sustainable design,” Salesforce’s Elizabeth Pinkham wrote in a blog post announcing the project.

As is Salesforce’s way, it’s going to be the tallest building in the city when it’s done, and will sit in the Circular Quay, part of the central business district in the city, and will house shops and restaurants on the main floor. As with all of its modern towers, it’s going to dedicate the top floor to allow for flexible use for employees, customers and partners. The building will also boast a variety of spaces including a Salesforce Innovation Center for customers along with social lounges, mindfulness areas and a variety of spaces for employees to collaborate.

Salesforce has had a presence in Sydney for more than 15 years, according to the company, and this tower is an attempt to consolidate that presence into a single, modern space with room to expand over the next five years and add hundreds of new employees.

The announcement comes on the heels of the one earlier this year that the company was building a similarly grand project in Dublin to centralize operations in that city where it has had a presence since 2001.

Google brings its Jacquard wearables tech to Levi’s Trucker Jacket

Back in 2015, Google’s ATAP team demoed a new kind of wearable tech at Google I/O that used functional fabrics and conductive yarns to allow you to interact with your clothing and, by extension, the phone in your pocket. The company then released a jacket with Levi’s in 2017, but that was expensive, at $350, and never really quite caught on. Now, however, Jacquard is back. A few weeks ago, Saint Laurent launched a backpack with Jacquard support, but at $1,000, that was very much a luxury product. Today, however, Google and Levi’s are announcing their latest collaboration: Jacquard-enabled versions of Levi’s Trucker Jacket.

These jackets, which will come in different styles, including the Classic Trucker and the Sherpa Trucker, and in men’s and women’s versions, will retail for $198 for the Classic Trucker and $248 for the Sherpa Trucker. In addition to the U.S., it’ll be available in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K.

The idea here is simple and hasn’t changed since the original launch: a dongle in your jacket’s cuff connects to conductive yarns in your jacket. You can then swipe over your cuff, tap it or hold your hand over it to issue commands to your phone. You use the Jacquard phone app for iOS or Android to set up what each gesture does, with commands ranging from saving your location to bringing up the Google Assistant in your headphones, from skipping to the next song to controlling your camera for selfies or simply counting things during the day, like the coffees you drink on the go. If you have Bose noise-canceling headphones, the app also lets you set a gesture to turn your noise cancellation on or off. In total, there are currently 19 abilities available, and the dongle also includes a vibration motor for notifications.

2019 09 30 0946 1

What’s maybe most important, though, is that this (re-)launch sets up Jacquard as a more modular technology that Google and its partners hope will take it from a bit of a gimmick to something you’ll see in more places over the next few months and years.

“Since we launched the first product with Levi’s at the end of 2017, we were focused on trying to understand and working really hard on how we can take the technology from a single product […] to create a real technology platform that can be used by multiple brands and by multiple collaborators,” Ivan Poupyrev, the head of Jacquard by Google told me. He noted that the idea behind projects like Jacquard is to take things we use every day, like backpacks, jackets and shoes, and make them better with technology. He argued that, for the most part, technology hasn’t really been added to these things that we use every day. He wants to work with companies like Levi’s to “give people the opportunity to create new digital touchpoints to their digital life through things they already have and own and use every day.”

What’s also important about Jacquard 2.0 is that you can take the dongle from garment to garment. For the original jacket, the dongle only worked with this one specific type of jacket; now, you’ll be able to take it with you and use it in other wearables as well. The dongle, too, is significantly smaller and more powerful. It also now has more memory to support multiple products. Yet, in my own testing, its battery still lasts for a few days of occasional use, with plenty of standby time.

jacquard dongle

Poupyrev also noted that the team focused on reducing cost, “in order to bring the technology into a price range where it’s more attractive to consumers.” The team also made lots of changes to the software that runs on the device and, more importantly, in the cloud to allow it to configure itself for every product it’s being used in and to make it easier for the team to add new functionality over time (when was the last time your jacket got a software upgrade?).

He actually hopes that over time, people will forget that Google was involved in this. He wants the technology to fade into the background. Levi’s, on the other hand, obviously hopes that this technology will enable it to reach a new market. The 2017 version only included the Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket. Now, the company is going broader with different styles.

“We had gone out with a really sharp focus on trying to adapt the technology to meet the needs of our commuter customer, which a collection of Levi’s focused on urban cyclists,” Paul Dillinger, the VP of Global Product Innovation at Levi’s, told me when I asked him about the company’s original efforts around Jacquard. But there was a lot of interest beyond that community, he said, yet the built-in features were very much meant to serve the needs of this specific audience and not necessarily relevant to the lifestyles of other users. The jackets, of course, were also pretty expensive. “There was an appetite for the technology to do more and be more accessible,” he said — and the results of that work are these new jackets.

IMG 20190930 102524

Dillinger also noted that this changes the relationship his company has with the consumer, because Levi’s can now upgrade the technology in your jacket after you bought it. “This is a really new experience,” he said. “And it’s a completely different approach to fashion. The normal fashion promise from other companies really is that we promise that in six months, we’re going to try to sell you something else. Levi’s prides itself on creating enduring, lasting value in style and we are able to actually improve the value of the garment that was already in the consumer’s closet.”

I spent about a week with the Sherpa jacket before today’s launch. It does exactly what it promises to do. Pairing my phone and jacket took less than a minute and the connection between the two has been perfectly stable. The gesture recognition worked very well — maybe better than I expected. What it can do, it does well, and I appreciate that the team kept the functionality pretty narrow.

Whether Jacquard is for you may depend on your lifestyle, though. I think the ideal user is somebody who is out and about a lot, wearing headphones, given that music controls are one of the main features here. But you don’t have to be wearing headphones to get value out of Jacquard. I almost never wear headphones in public, but I used it to quickly tag where I parked my car, for example, and when I used it with headphones, I found using my jacket’s cuffs easier to forward to the next song than doing the same on my headphones. Your mileage may vary, of course, and while I like the idea of using this kind of tech so you need to take out your phone less often, I wonder if that ship hasn’t sailed at this point — and whether the controls on your headphones can’t do most of the things Jacquard can. Google surely wants Jacquard to be more than a gimmick, but at this stage, it kind of still is.

IMG 20190930 104137IMG 20190930 104137

U.S. security experts admit China’s 5G dominance, push for public investment

U.S. security experts are conceding that China has won the race to develop and deploy the 5G telecommunications infrastructure seen as underpinning the next generation of technological advancement and warn that the country and its allies must develop a response — and quickly.

The challenge we have in the development of the 5G network, at least in the early stage, is the dominance of the Huawei firm,” said Tom Ridge, the former US Secretary of Homeland Security and governor of Pennsylvania on a conference call organized recently by Global Cyber Policy Watch. “To embed that technology into a critical piece of infrastructure which is telecom is a huge national security risk.” 

Already some $500 million is being allocated to the development of end-to-end encryption software and other technologies through the latest budget for the U.S. Department of Defense, but these officials warn that the money is too little and potentially too late, unless more drastic moves are made.

(You can also hear more about this at TechCrunch Disrupt in SF next week, where we’ll be interviewing startup founders and investors who build businesses by working with governments.)

The problems posed by China’s dominance in this critical component of new telecommunications technologies cut across public and private sector security concerns. They range from intellectual property theft to theft of state secrets and could curtail the ways the U.S. government shares critical intelligence information with its allies, along with opening up the U.S. to direct foreign espionage by the Chinese government, Ridge and other security experts warned.

Adarga closes £5M Series A funding for its Palantir-like AI platform

AI startup Adarga has closed a £5 million Series A fundraising by Allectus Capital. But this news rather cloaks the fact that it has been building up a head of steam since its founding in 2016, building up what they say is a £30 million-plus sales pipeline through strategic collaborations with a number of global industrial partners and gradually building its management team.

The proceeds will be used to continue the expansion of Adarga’s data science and software engineering teams and to roll out internationally.

Adarga, which comes from the word for an old Moorish shield, is a London and Bristol-based startup. It uses AI to change the way financial institutions, intelligence agencies and defence companies tackle problems, helping crunch vast amounts of data to identify possible threats even before they occur. The startup’s proposition sounds similar to that of Palantir, which is known for working with the U.S. military.

What Adarga does is allow organizations to transform normally data-intensive, human knowledge processes by analyzing vast volumes of data more quickly and accurately. Adarga clients can build up a “Knowledge Graph” about subjects and targets.

The U.K. government is a client as well as the finance sector, where it’s used for financial analysis and by insurance companies. Founded in 2016, it now has 26 employees — including data scientists from some of the U.K.’s top universities.

The company has received support from Benevolent AI, one of the key players in the U.K. AI tech scene. Benevolent AI, which is worth $2 billion after a $115 million funding round, is a minority shareholder in Adarga. It has not provided financial backing, but rather support in kind and technical help.

Rob Bassett Cross, CEO of Adarga, commented: “With the completion of this round, Adarga is focused on consolidating its competitive position in the U.K. defence and security sector. We are positioning ourselves as the software platform of choice for organisations who cannot deal effectively with the scale and complexity of their enterprise data and are actively seeking an alternative to knowledge intensive human processes. Built by experienced sector specialists, the Company has rapidly progressed a real solution to address the challenges of an ever-growing volume of unstructured data.”

Bassett Cross is an interesting guy, to say the least. You won’t find much about him on LinkedIn, but in previous interviews, he has revealed that he is a former army officer and special operations expert who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was awarded the military cross.

The company recently held a new annual event, the Adarga AI Symposium, at the The Royal Institution, London, which featured futurist Mark Stevenson, Ranju Das of Amazon Web Services and General Stanley A. McChrystal.

Matthew Gould, head of Emerging Technology at Allectus Capital, said: “Adarga has developed a world-class analytics platform to support real-time critical decisioning by public sector and defence stakeholders. What Rob and the team have built in a short time is a hugely exciting example of the founder-led, disruptive businesses that we like to partner with – especially in an ever-increasing global threat landscape.”

Allectus Capital is based in Sydney, Australia and invests across Asia-Pacific, the U.K. and the U.S. It has previously invested in Cluey Learning (Series A, AUS$20 million), Everproof, Switch Automation and Automio.

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.

 

Elon Musk: Spotify is “coming” to Tesla vehicles in North America

Tesla owners in the U.S. and Canada may finally get that free Spotify Premium integration they’ve been asking for.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted late Wednesday night that Spotify premium integration is “coming.” Musk, who has talked about bringing Spotify to owners in North America before, did not provide a timeline. In other words, the music streaming service could be integrated next week or a six months from now.

But still, it’s a moment of celebration for many Tesla owners who have complained about Slacker Radio, the streaming music service integrated into all vehicles in the U.S. and Canada. Owners in Europe, Australia and Hong Kong have had Spotify Premium in their vehicles since late 2015.

Slacker Radio, which launched in 2007, has customizable radio stations based on the listener’s personal music tastes. The free and subscription-based service also tried to differentiate itself from the likes of Spotify and Pandora by using DJs to curate programs and at one time, even sold a portable music player. Despite its efforts, Slacker has been overshadowed by Spotify, which had 232 million monthly active users and 108 million paying subscribers at the end of June 2019.

Slacker was acquired in 2017 for $50 million in cash and stock by the LiveXLive, an entertainment and streaming service that focused on live music performances.

Last year, LiveXLive announced a partnership with Dash Radio, a digital radio broadcasting platform with more than 80 original live stations. Under the deal, Dash channels will be available across Slacker Radio a move meant to bring more live radio on the streaming service.

TransferWise’s debit card launches in Australia and New Zealand, with Singapore to follow

International money transfer startup TransferWise’s debit card is now available in Australia and New Zealand, with a Singapore launch expected by the end of this year as the company expands its presence in the Asia-Pacific region. TransferWise’s debit card, which features low, transparent fees and exchange rates, first launched in the United Kingdom and Europe last year before arriving in the United States in June. Since its launch, the company claims the debit card has been used for 15 million transactions.

Australian and New Zealand customers will have access to the TransferWise Platinum debit Mastercard (a business debit card is also available). Cards are linked to TransferWise accounts, which give holders bank account numbers and details in multiple countries, making it easier and cheaper to send and receive multiple currencies. The company says that over the past year, customers have deposited more than $10 billion in their accounts.

TransferWise’s debit cards allow users to spend in more than 40 currencies at real exchange rates. In an email, co-founder and CEO Kristo Käärmann told TechCrunch that TransferWise decided to launch its debit card in Australia and New Zealand because its business there has already been growing quickly. “In addition to responding to customer demand, launching the card in Australia and New Zealand was also driven by the fact that Aussies and Kiwis are being overcharged by banks for using their own money abroad. It is expensive to use debit, travel and credit cards for spending or withdrawals,” he said.

Käärmann added that “independent research conducted by Capital Economics showed that Australians lost $2.14 billion last year alone just for using their bank issued card abroad. This is because banks and other providers charge transaction fees every time someone uses their card abroad, plus an inflated exchange rate. Similarly, in New Zealand, Kiwis lost $1 billion simply for using their card abroad.”

One of TransferWise’s competitive advantages is that unlike most legacy banking and money transfer services, its accounts and cards were designed from the start to be used internationally. “While there are existing multi-currency cards that exist in Australia and New Zealand, they are prohibitively expensive to use. For example in Australia, the TransferWise Platinum debit Mastercard is on average 11 times cheaper than most travel, debit, prepaid and credit cards,” Käärmann said.

TransferWise cards don’t have transaction fees or exchange rate markups and cardholders are allowed to withdraw up to AUD $350 every 30 days for free at any ATM in the world.

The company is currently talking to regulators in several Asian countries, a process that can take up to two years, Käärmann said. It was recently granted a remittance license in Malaysia and plan to make its remittance service available there by end of this year.

Known for its electric scooters, Gogoro moves toward its future as a mobility platform

Since the launch of its first electric scooter in 2015, Gogoro co-founder and CEO Horace Luke has frequently been asked when the startup is going to expand beyond Taiwan. In its home country, Gogoro’s two-wheel vehicles, with their distinctive swappable battery system, are now the top-selling electric scooters.

But Luke says the company has always seen itself as a platform company, with the ultimate goal of providing a turnkey solution for energy-efficient vehicles. Now with the launch of GoShare*, its new vehicle-sharing platform, and partnerships with manufacturers such as Yamaha, Gogoro is ready to go global.

Founded by Luke, HTC’s former chief innovation officer, and chief technology officer Matt Taylor in 2011, Gogoro develops most of its technology in-house, including scooter motors, telematics units, backend servers and software. GoShare’s pilot program will launch next month in Taoyuan City, where Gogoro’s research and development center is located, with the goal of expanding with partners into cities around the world over the next year, starting in Europe, Australia and Southeast Asia.

“Gogoro has always been out with a thesis that we will be a platform enabler,” Luke told Extra Crunch during an interview in the company’s Taipei City headquarters. “Now you’ve seen the transformation of the company. Doing something this big, like what Gogoro is doing, takes time.”

Since the release of Gogoro’s first Smartscooter in 2015, the company says it has become the best-selling brand of electric two-wheel vehicles in Taiwan, holding a 17 percent share of the country’s vehicle market, including gas vehicles.

Last year, the company began licensing its technology to manufacturers Yamaha, Aeon and PGO to produce scooters that run on Gogoro’s batteries and charging infrastructure. It also has a partnership with Coup, the European electric-scooter sharing startup that plans to increase its fleet to more than 5,000 scooters on the streets of Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Tübingen this year, and is seeking similar deals with other vehicle-sharing services, as well as local governments that want to reduce traffic and pollution (the GoShare pilot program is being launched in collaboration with Taoyuan City’s government).

GoShare’s platform is meant to be a “very robust and cost-effective, very worry-free solution for municipalities and entrepreneurs,” Luke says. Parts of the system can be licensed separately or packaged as a turnkey solution that can be deployed in as little as two weeks.

The company describes GoShare as a “mobility solution.” When asked if this means the platform can be used for other electric vehicles, including cars, Luke says “just think of us as batteries and a motor.”

“It’s just like computers and processing ram,” he adds. “It can be any form factor. It just happens to be that the two-wheel form factor is the one we’re working on and focusing on at the moment.”

Virgin Orbit signs agreement to launch small satellites for the UK’s Royal Air Force

Virgin Orbit, the small satellite launch company backed by billionaire Richard Branson, has signed an initial agreement to develop small satellite launch capabilities for the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF). The deal, which is part of the RAF’s Artemis project, will see Virgin Orbit aim to launch hardware provided by Guildford, UK-based Surrey Satellites in a demo mission.

This is in keeping with Virgin Orbit’s stated hope to bring spacecraft launch capabilities to the UK. The closest the UK has come is when it launched a British satellite aboard a British rocket in 1971 – but that took off from a launchpad in Australia. Virgin Orbit announced a deal to build a new Spaceport from which its modified 747 launch aircraft will take-off in Cornwall, with a target open date of early next decade.

Virgin Orbit’s method for launching doesn’t involve terrestrial rockets at all, which helps a lot with the cost of infrastructure (since you basically just need a traditional airfield). Basically, a smaller rocket is attached to the wing of a modified Boeing 747, which then separates at a high cruising altitude and blasts the rest of the relatively short way to low-Earth orbit carrying light payloads.

The method doesn’t work to get big, heavy satellites into space (which, somewhat ironically in this case, are the kind typically sent up by government and military agencies). But it’s perfect for sending smaller satellites, which have become popular because of their cost benefits in terms of both construction and launch price.