DroneBase raises capital and partners with FLIR Systems to train pilots on thermal imaging tech

Publicly traded sensor technology developer, FLIR Systems, is investing in a strategic round of funding for the outsourced drone imaging company, DroneBase.

The two companies are also partnering to provide FLIR’s thermal imaging technology and training services to DroneBase’s stable of pilots.

Terms of the investment were not disclosed.

“Our investment in DroneBase helps expand the adoption of FLIR thermal imaging technology by putting it in the hands of more pilots who fly drones every day,” said Jim Cannon, the president and chief executive of FLIR, in a statement. “DroneBase’s enterprise pilot network will receive training by professional thermographers, enabling DroneBase to offer specialized thermal inspection services for customers on a wider scale, and creating an opportunity for FLIR to incorporate additional service offerings through DroneBase in the future.”

Los Angeles-based DroneBase has contracted pilots to complete over 100,000 commercial missions in over 70 countries for residential and commercial real estate, insurance, telecommunications, construction and media companies, according to a statement.

Through FLIR’s Infrared Training Center, FLIR and DroneBase will develop a specialized training program that will be certified exclusively by DroneBase

“Through FLIR’s strategic investment in DroneBase, we are now able to offer scalable thermal solutions to enterprises of any size,” said Dan Burton, founder and chief executive of DroneBase, in a statement. “This access to valuable data will allow stakeholders to make better decisions about their most critical assets. Like myself, many DroneBase pilots relied on FLIR products when they served in the military. This integration will offer military veterans a chance to work with FLIR again and leverage their training in their civilian lives.”

GBatteries let you charge your car as quickly as visiting the pump

A YC startup called GBatteries has come out of stealth with a bold claim: they can recharge an electric car as quickly as it takes to full up a tank of gas.

Created by aerospace engineer Kostya Khomutov, electrical engineers Alex Tkachenko and Nick Sherstyuk, and CCO Tim Sherstyuk, the company is funded by the likes of Airbus Ventures, Initialized Capital, Plug and Play, and SV Angel.

The system uses AI to optimize the charging systems in electric cars.

“Most companies are focused on developing new chemistries or materials (ex. Enevate, Storedot) to improve charging speed of batteries. Developing new materials is difficult, and scaling up production to the needs of automotive companies requires billions of $,” said Khomutov. “Our technology is a combination of software algorithms (AI) and electronics, that works with off-the-shelf Li-ion batteries that have already been validated, tested, and produced by battery manufacturers. Nothing else needs to change.”

The team makes some bold claims. The product allows users to charge a 60kWh EV battery pack with 119 miles of range in 15 minutes as compared to 15 miles in 15 minutes today. “The technology works with off-the-shelf lithium ion batteries and existing fast charge infrastructure by integrating via a patented self-contained adapter on a car charge port,” writes the team. They demonstrated their product at CES this year.

Most charging systems depend on fairly primitive systems for topping up batteries. Various factors – including temperature – can slow down or stop a charge. GBatteries manages this by setting a very specific charging model that “slows down” and “speeds up” the charge as necessary. This allows the charge to go much faster under the right conditions.

The company bloomed out of frustration.

“We’ve always tinkered with stuff together since before I was even a teenager, and over time had created a burgeoning hardware lab in our basement,” said Sherstyuk. “While I was studying Chemistry at Carleton University in Ottawa, we’d often debate and discuss why batteries in our phones got so bad so rapidly – you’d buy a phone, and a year later it would almost be unusable because the battery degraded so badly.”

“This sparked us to see if we can solve the problem by somehow extending the cycle life of batteries and achieve better performance, so that we’d have something that lasts. We spent a few weeks in our basement lab wiring together a simple control system along with an algorithm to charge a few battery cells, and after 6 months of testing and iterations we started seeing a noticeable difference between batteries charged conventionally, and ones using our algorithm. A year and a half later of constant iterations and development, we applied and were accepted in 2014 into YC.”

While it’s not clear when this technology will hit commercial vehicles, it could be the breakthrough we all need to start replacing our gas cars with something a little more environmentally-friendly.

UK police release airport drone suspects and admit there may not have been any drones after all

Less than a week after mystery drones grounded flights at the U.K’s second largest airport, wreaking havoc on as many as 140,000 people’s travel plans for the Christmas period, police have admitted that there may in fact not have been any drones at all.

Gatwick airport reopened on Friday after a one-day shutdown but it appears that investigators are no closer to knowing what actually took place.

The Guardian reports that police released and exonerated a couple who had been detained as suspects, while a senior police spokesperson said that there is “always a possibility that there may not have been any genuine drone activity in the first place.”

Indeed, the police are reliant on eyewitness accounts — 67 of them, to be precise — to piece together what happened. The BBC reported last week that two drones flying “over the perimeter fence and into where the runway operates from” were spotted by bystanders late Wednesday, with a third reportedly seen on Thursday morning. Runways were shut for around six hours between Wednesday evenings and the early hours of Thursday, before a fuller suspension came into effect after the alleged sighting of the third drone.

Police released suspects Elaine Kirk and Paul Gait on Sunday evening after concluding that they were not responsible for the incident. Their arrest had prompted British newspapers and commentators to berate the pair even before they were charged. The Mail on Sunday shamed them for “ruining Christmas” while TV presenter and former tabloid journalist Piers Morgan was forced to apologize for an earlier tweet that labeled Kirk and Gait as “clowns.”

Despite going down the wrong avenue with the arrest, investigators do have more to work with after they recovered a fallen and damaged drone from the north side of the airport. It is being tested for clues on who piloted it, according to The Guardian .

As we explained last week, the U.K. has specific laws around flying drones near an airport although it remains unclear exactly what did take place.

The U.K. made amendments to existing legislation this year to make illegal flying a drone within 1km of an airport after a planned drone bill got delayed.

The safety focused tweak to the law five months ago also restricted drone flight height to 400 ft. A registration scheme for drone owners is also set to be introduced next year.

Under current U.K. law, a drone operator who is charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or a person in an aircraft can face a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.

Although, in the Gatwick incident case, it’s not clear whether simply flying a drone near a runway would constitute an attempt to endanger an aircraft under the law. Even though the incident has clearly caused major disruption to travelers as the safety-conscious airport takes no chances.

SimbaPay launches Kenya to China payment service via WeChat

Forging another link between Africa and China’s digital economies, the African-focused money transfer startup SimbaPay and Kenya’s Family Bank are partnering with WeChat to launch an instant payment service from East-Africa to China.

The product partnership is aimed at Kenyan merchants who purchase goods from China—Kenya’s largest import source.

Using QR codes, SimbaPay developed a third-party payment aggregator that enables funds delivery into WeChat’s billion plus user network.

Individuals and businesses can now send funds to China through Family Bank’s PesaPap app, Safaricom’s M-Pesa, or by texting USSD using the code *325#.

The service opens up a faster and less expensive money transfer option between Kenya and China through the TenCent-owned WeChat social media platform.

“Kenya imports about $4 billion goods from China. That’s the total market that we’re getting into. We’re looking at a single digit market share of the transactional volume around that,” SimbaPay Founder and CEO Sagini Onyancha told TechCrunch.

“The users [of the new product] are primary small Kenyan businesses, that import phones, gadgets, electronics…small to medium size traders who import goods from China,” he said.

SimbaPay and Family Bank will generate revenues on the WeChat based transfer service through a fee share arrangement on transactions. “We have a sliding scale of charges [for the service]. For example, to send the equivalent of $80 will cost $3.50,” said Sagini.

This presents a significant reduction of fees and opportunity cost for Kenyan traders who import from China, according to Sagini and Family Bank.

Current available payment methods to China for Kenyan businesses are less secure and more expensive options such as traditional money transmitters (Western Union), SWIFT, and off the grid services, according to Sagini and Family Bank Chief Operation Officer (COO) Godfrey Kariuki Kamau.

“There are informal channels on the street who will take your money, get it paid out to the recipient [in China] one or two days later and take a percentage,” said Sagini.

SimbaPay and Family Bank estimate over seven million customers and businesses will be able to access their China WeChat payment service, based on projections of Kenya’s current SMEs.

Located in Nairobi, Family Bank has a current customer base of 600,000 account holders (including SMEs) across 92 branches, according to COO Kariuki Kamau.

Prior to the SimbaPay-Family Bank China service, he said a number of Family Bank’s small business customers “were taking cash from our counters and pooling with…informal transmitters” to pay Chinese vendors.

Kariuki Kamau estimates the immediate transactional potential for the new SimbaPay WeChat based service will be $1 million in the first three months.

“The businesses in Kenya import over $4 billion from China, so this could be conservative. We could see this grow 4 to 5 times beyond that when people hear they can send money directly,” said Kariuki Kamau.

On regulation of this new service, he confirmed “Family Bank got the approval of the [Kenyan] Central Bank for SimbaPay to move in the market and…we confirmed with the UK financial regulators that SimbaPay is allowed to do this business.

Headquarted in London, SimbaPay launched in 2015 to facilitate more cost effective and efficient transfer of funds across Africa. The platform works as a gateway payment product “for banks and mobile money providers to offer their customers without having to make any major technical integration” to send funds across Africa’s borders, explained Sagini.

“We’ve created the platform in such a way that we’re able to provide this service like a SaaS B2B service to banks and telcos…and our service is available without internet access,” Sagini said—noting the platform’s USSD capabilities.

The startup has focused more on capturing intra-Africa and out-of-Africa payments volumes, compared to a number of fintech companies with an eye on the multi-billion dollar remittance market for funds sent to Africa from regions such as Europe and North America.

SimbaPay transfers funds to 11 countries—9 in Africa then to China and India. “Early next year we’ll increase this to 29 countries,” said Sagini. This includes offering the WeChat China payment service elsewhere in East Africa.

SimbaPay has raised $1 million in seed funds from TechStars, Barclays Accelerator, and local angel investors, according its CEO.

Tech giants take seats on Homeland Security’s new supply chain task force

Homeland Security’s supply chain task force is finally off the ground..

The public-private coalition, set up earlier this year, now has representatives from more than two dozen companies and industry groups signed up to help the government try to combat risks faced by tech companies from threats in the supply chain.

Called the ICT Supply Chain Task Force, government officials hope to better understand to address security issues with global technology supply chains and make recommendations. By collaborating, the group aims to better understand the risks that companies face from industrial espionage, government interference, and other cybersecurity issues that could pose a threat to U.S national security.

One of those new members is Cisco’s Edna Conway, chief security officer for its global value chain. She told TechCrunch that enterprises and governments “can no longer effectively identify, defend against and mitigate the risks across that global value chain in isolation.”

She, like others, have called for a group effort to tackle the threats they face.

The task force couldn’t come soon enough. Although the government has long known of supply chain threats, the group’s official formation comes in the aftermath of Bloomberg’s controversial claims that Chinese intelligence had infiltrated the server hardware supply chain that with tiny chips. Bloomberg’s claims have been largely debunked — or not proven to the standard that many have called for. But it doesn’t diminish the long-known threat that the U.S. electronics and data industries face.

By working together, the task force aims to to create policy recommendations that would incentivize businesses to buy hardware and software directly from original vendors and vetted resellers to reduce the risk of having an unknown, untrusted third-party in the mix. One of the end goals is to ensure that only the trusted vendors, which stick to a strict set of criteria laid out by the task force, will be qualified to bid for contracts.

“Cisco brings to the task force this collaborative spirit, a deep understanding of the operation of global ICT value chains and my expertise in shifting security and risk from ‘limiting damage’ to key enabler of business differentiation,” said Conway.

Cisco joins other tech giants and major telcos at the table, including Accenture, AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, CTIA, CyberRx, Cybersecurity Coalition, Cyxtera, FireEye, Intel, ITI, IT-ISAC, Microsoft, NAB, NCTA, NTCA, Palo Alto Networks, Samsung, Sprint, Threat Sketch, TIA, T-Mobile, US Telecom and Verizon (which, as a reminder, owns TechCrunch).

They will be joined by representatives from Homeland Security, the Defense Dept., the Justice Dept., the Treasury, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, among others in government.

Homeland Security under secretary Christopher Krebs said that by bringing together representatives from the public and private sector, the task force has “a unique ability to confront today’s challenges by sharing information across government and industry in real-time and developing the ability to better plan for the risks of the future.”

How to build STEM toys

On chilly Saturday mornings my father would fire up the kerosene heater and get the back of our garage warm. He’d turn on the old radio, constantly tuned to the local public radio station, and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me or Harry Shearer would come on, clearing away the static like gust of wind through cobwebs.

“Get your old clothes on,” he’d say, sticking his head into the warm kitchen. I’d still be in my pajamas. I’d grunt and grumble. I wanted to watch TV or play with my computer or read or do anything other than sit on a milk crate in a cold garage and fix the car.

But that’s what you did. If there was something to be done on the car back in 1985 – back when I was ten and my Dad was still alive – we did it ourselves. Everything in those old engines was accessible. Nothing was packed in, nothing was covered in plastic cowlings, hidden away and out of sight. Back then you could follow the brake lines through the car just by laying underneath it. You could see which belts needed tightening, which seals were leaking, and what was going on with the spark plugs. So that’s what we did. We replaced brake pads. We pulled out the oil plug and let black crude flow from the little hole like a solid thing into a cut off milk jug. We turned little screws to fix the idle. We gapped spark plugs, changed tires, and generally did everything we could do that didn’t require a mechanic’s lift.

Sometimes the fix was easy. We’d jack up each side and put on his studded snow tires in November, just after Thanksgiving, so we could drive, the road sizzling under us, to the Ohio River Valley and up slick hills to visit our cousins. We’d check fluids and top things off. We’d replace an air or oil filter.

And other times, when the problem was too big, he’d consult the Chilton repair manual. This manual held deep arcana about the Ford Fairmont or the VW Vanagon he owned. They made a manual for almost any car, like an O’Reilly book for mechanics. The books remained pristine in that grubby garage because that book held everything we needed to know about fixing everything in the car. He took good care of them.

When we pulled the manual I knew we’d be out there for a while. The kerosene heater would hiss as I rumbled my dad’s stuff, pulling out old copper wire and magazines, avoiding the places I knew he hid guns or old copies of Mayfair. I’d try to build my own things until he needed me. One year I was working on a banjo (it never played right) and another year I made a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher (I didn’t shoot my eye out). He’d call out for tools. Monkey wrench. Needle nose. 11mm. No, the other one. The jar full of bolts he collected over the years, unsorted. He knew where everything was and he knew when he needed it. I was his assistant in the slow surgery he performed.

And I’d take part. I’d hold something while he twisted. I’d get my small hands in where his big hands didn’t fit. I’d hold the trouble light, a yellow caged thing that burned you if you touched the metal bulb cage.

Once I sprinkled water on the hot bulb. It exploded and he explained thermodynamics to me as he picked glass out of the cage and screwed in a new light.

When we were done, after hours of slow, methodical work, he’d fire up the car and we’d go for a drive. The knock would be gone (or sometimes it would be worse). The brakes would work better, the steering would be stronger, the engine would purr instead of lope. We’d drive down the street to White Castle or BW3 or just down to the highway to open the thing up and see if still drove. It always did.

Tools, not toys

The last time I did my own work on a car was in Fairfax, Virginia. My brake pads were going and I figured I’d replace them. I knew how. I bought the Chilton, bought the pads, and sat in a parking structure, jacking up the car with a little screw jack that threatened to buckle.

I put them on backwards. Front pads in the back, back pads in the front. The car drove like crap.

I gave up and took it to the Sears repair center around the corner. That was in 1999 or so, back when Sears still ruled the malls around DC.

“Missssster BIGGS,” yelled the service guy over the din of daytime TV and pneumatic tools. He was laughing.

“We fixed it, man. You did a great job, though, really,” he said. He handed me a bill.

And that was that. An entire body of knowledge lost in a heartbeat. I haven’t cracked the hood except to top up my washer fluid in two decades. Why, when the car is more robot than mechanical horse?

But those cold weekends weren’t a waste. I learned to riddle out problems, to dig through old books for good answers, to accept nothing at face value. The broken part is always out of sight – a seal, a cracked hose, a fracture in a piece of cast steel – and it’s great fun to suss it out. So I did learn something. I learned to think through physical problems by solving physical problems. I learned electronics by replacing wires. I learned patience.

Fast forward to today’s fashion for STEM toys. These toys are supposed to do all the work that my father did with me on those cold Saturdays. A little robot that runs around on the floor is supposed to replace building and learning. A box of parts that fit together like Lego and animated with a few lines of code should be enough for any kid to get a body of knowledge so deep that we won’t be plunged into a dark pit of ignorance come 2040.

But they toys don’t work. I’ve been very critical of modern STEM toys because they are just toys. The only things I’ve found remotely education are Scratch, with its BASIC-like mental syntax, and Adafruit products that require actual soldering. Every other one, from the Nintendo Labo to the broken robot at the bottom of our basement stairs, are junk.

It’s our responsibility as parents to educate. There’s not much opportunity to do that anymore. Education without a goal is empty. I learned by tearing down and building up. It’s hard to do that these days when everything is deeply disposable. But maybe there’s hope. I’ve vowed to show my kids the command line, the protocols, and the code behind their favorite games. My son owns Bitcoin and he follows the price like a stock trader. My daughter builds Raspberry Pi things on a regular basis, understanding that she holds a computer, not a toy, in her small hand. We learn how to fix broken things, opening old gadgets from my childhood, cleaning the contacts, replacing the batteries. One of our favorite games is the Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth, a game we resurrected with a little careful troubleshooting.

This fiddling is obviously not the same as what I did with my dad. I doubt I’ll be able to recreate those mornings, as much as I hated them then and love them now. Maybe my days of cold garages and NPR are over. And maybe all our children deserve are Logo Turtles made out of injection-molded plastic. But I’m willing to bet that somewhere out there there’s a kid who wants to do, not be told to do, and at the end of the project wants to feel the wind in her hair and smell a cold snap coming across the plains, crisp and clear and full of the future. And it’s our job to provide that feeling, no matter what. We can’t offload that onto a toy.

Minds, the blockchain-based social network, grabs a $6M Series A

Minds, a decentralized social network, has raised $6 million in Series A funding from Medici Ventures, Overstock.com’s venture arm. Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne will join the Minds Board of Directors.

What is a decentralized social network? The creators, who originally crowdfunded their product, see it as an anti-surveillance, anti-censorship, and anti-“big tech” platform that ensures that no one party controls your online presence. And Minds is already seeing solid movement.

“In June 2018, Minds saw an enormous uptick in new Vietnamese of hundreds of thousands users as a direct response to new laws in the country implementing an invasive ‘cybersecurity’ law which included uninhibited access to user data on social networks like Facebook and Google (who are complying so far) and the ability to censor user content,” said Minds founder Bill Ottman.

“There has been increasing excitement in recent years over the power of blockchain technology to liberate individuals and organizations,” said Byrne. “Minds’ work employing blockchain technology as a social media application is the next great innovation toward the mainstream use of this world-changing technology.”

Interestingly, Minds is a model for the future of hybrid investing, a process of raising some cash via token and raising further cash via VC. This model ensures a level of independence from investors but also allows expertise and experience to presumably flow into the company.

Ottman, for his part, just wants to build something revolutionary.

“The rise of an open source, encrypted and decentralized social network is crucial to combat the big-tech monopolies that have abused and ignored users for years. With systemic data breaches, shadow-banning and censorship, people over the world are demanding a digital revolution. User-safety, fair economies, and global freedom of expression depend on it – we are all in this battle together,” said Ottman.

California passes law that bans default passwords in connected devices

Good news!

California has passed a law banning default passwords like “admin,” “123456” and the old classic “password” in all new consumer electronics starting in 2020.

Every new gadget built in the state from routers to smart home tech will have to come with “reasonable” security features out of the box. The law specifically calls for each device to come with a preprogrammed password “unique to each device.”

It also mandates that any new device “contains a security feature that requires a user to generate a new means of authentication before access is granted to the device for the first time,” forcing users to change the unique password to something new as soon as it’s switched on for the first time.

For years, botnets have utilized the power of badly secured connected devices to pummel sites with huge amounts of internet traffic — so-called distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. Botnets typically rely on default passwords that are hardcoded into devices when they’re built that aren’t later changed by the user. Malware breaks into the devices using publicly available default passwords, hijacks the device and ensnares the device into conducting cyberattacks without the user’s knowledge.

Two years ago, the notorious Mirai botnet dragged thousands of devices together to target Dyn, a networking company that provides domain name service to major sites. By knocking Dyn offline, other sites that relied on its services were also inaccessible — like Twitter, Spotify and SoundCloud.

Mirai was a relatively rudimentary, albeit powerful botnet that relied on default passwords. This law is a step in the right direction to prevent these kinds of botnets, but falls short on wider security issues.

Other, more advanced botnets don’t need to guess a password because they instead exploit known vulnerabilities in Internet of Things devices — like smart bulbs, alarms and home electronics.

As noted by others, the law as signed does not mandate device makers to update their software when bugs are found. The big device makers, like Amazon, Apple and Google, do update their software, but many of the lesser-known brands do not.

Still, as it stands, the law is better than nothing — even if there’s room for improvement in the future.

African experiments with drone technologies could leapfrog decades of infrastructure neglect

A drone revolution is coming to sub-Saharan Africa.

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

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

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

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

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

Test in Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UAV Policy

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

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

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

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

So what does this mean?

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

Lisa Ellsman, shared a similar interpretation.

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

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

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

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

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

Commercial Use Cases

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

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

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

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

Zipline demonstration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Africa and Global UAV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scientists make a touch tablet that rolls and scrolls

Research scientists at Queen’s University’s Human Media Lab have built a prototype touchscreen device that’s neither smartphone nor tablet but kind of both — and more besides. The device, which they’ve christened the MagicScroll, is inspired by ancient (papyrus/paper/parchment) scrolls so it takes a rolled-up, cylindrical form factor — enabled by a flexible 7.5inch touchscreen housed in the casing.

This novel form factor, which they made using 3D printing, means the device can be used like an erstwhile rolodex (remember those?!) for flipping through on-screen contacts quickly by turning a physical rotary wheel built into the edge of the device. (They’ve actually added one on each end.)

Then, when more information or a deeper dive is required, the user is able to pop the screen out of the casing to expand the visible display real estate. The flexible screen on the prototype has a resolution of 2K. So more mid-tier mobile phone of yore than crisp iPhone Retina display at this nascent stage.

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The scientists also reckon the scroll form factor offers a pleasing ergonomically option for making actual phone calls too, given that a rolled up scroll can sit snugly against the face.

Though they admit their prototype is still rather large at this stage — albeit, that just adds to the delightfully retro feel of the thing, making it come over like a massive mobile phone of the 1980s. Like the classic Motorola 8000X Dynatac of 1984.

While still bulky at this R&D stage, the team argues the cylindrical, flexible screen form factor of their prototype offers advantages by being lightweight and easier to hold with one hand than a traditional tablet device, such as an iPad. And when rolled up they point out it can also fit in a pocket. (Albeit, a large one.)

They also imagine it being used as a dictation device or pointing device, as well as a voice phone. And the prototype includes a camera — which allows the device to be controlled using gestures, similar to Nintendo’s ‘Wiimote’ gesture system.

In another fun twist they’ve added robotic actuators to the rotary wheels so the scroll can physically move or spin in place in various scenarios, such as when it receives a notification. Clocky eat your heart out.

“We were inspired by the design of ancient scrolls because their form allows for a more natural, uninterrupted experience of long visual timelines,” said Roel Vertegaal, professor of human-computer interaction and director of the lab, in a statement.

“Another source of inspiration was the old rolodex filing systems that were used to store and browse contact cards. The MagicScroll’s scroll wheel allows for infinite scroll action for quick browsing through long lists. Unfolding the scroll is a tangible experience that gives a full screen view of the selected item. Picture browsing through your Instagram timeline, messages or LinkedIn contacts this way!”

“Eventually, our hope is to design the device so that it can even roll into something as small as a pen that you could carry in your shirt pocket,” he added. “More broadly, the MagicScroll project is also allowing us to further examine notions that ‘screens don’t have to be flat’ and ‘anything can become a screen’. Whether it’s a reusable cup made of an interactive screen on which you can select your order before arriving at a coffee-filling kiosk, or a display on your clothes, we’re exploring how objects can become the apps.”

The team has made a video showing the prototype in action (embedded below), and will be presenting the project at the MobileHCI conference on Human-Computer Interaction in Barcelona next month.

While any kind of mobile device resembling the MagicScroll is clearly very, very far off even a sniff of commercialization (especially as these sorts of concept devices have long been teased by mobile device firms’ R&D labs — while the companies keep pumping out identikit rectangles of touch-sensitive glass… ), it’s worth noting that Samsung has been slated to be working a a smartphone with a foldable screen for some years now. And, according to the most recent chatter about this rumor, it might be released next year. Or, well, it still might not.

But whether Samsung’s definition of ‘foldable’ will translate into something as flexibly bendy as the MagicScroll prototype is highly, highly doubtful. A fused clamshell design — where two flat screens could be opened to seamlessly expand them and closed up again to shrink the device footprint for pocketability — seems a much more likely choice for Samsung designers to make, given the obvious commercial challenges of selling a device with a transforming form factor that’s also robust enough to withstand everyday consumer use and abuse.

Add to that, for all the visual fun of these things, it’s not clear that consumers would be inspired to adopt anything so different en masse. Sophisticated (and inevitably) fiddly devices are more likely to appeal to specific niche use cases and user scenarios.

For the mainstream six inches of touch-sensitive (and flat) glass seems to do the trick.