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.

Next iPhone could be available in grey, white, blue, red and orange

According to a supply chain report, Apple is preparing to release three iPhone lines this fall. One, a 5.8-inch iPhone X with improved specs and lower price. Two, a new 6.5-inch iPhone X Plus with an OLED screen. And three, a 6.1-inch iPhone with Face ID, which is said to come in a variety of colors including grey, white, blue, red and orange.

Ming-Chi Kuo reports, via 9to5mac, that the 6.5-inch iPhone X Plus is said to take the $1000 price point from the iPhone X. This will cause the next iPhone X to be less expensive than its current incarnation. The colorful 6.1-inch iPhone will be the least expensive model with a price tag around $700. Information about storage was not included in the report.

The least-expensive iPhone is said to resemble the iPhone X and include FaceID though Apple might concede the dual-camera option to the higher price models. The analyst expects this $700 option to account for 55% of new iPhone sales and increase through 2019.

If the part about the colors is correct, Apple is set introduce a slash of color to the monochrome phone market. Currently, phones are mostly available in greys and blacks with most vendors offering a couple color options through special editions. That’s boring. Apple tried this in the past with its budget-minded iPhone 5c. Making its best-selling model available in colors is a distinct shift in strategy. It’s highly likely other firms such as Samsung and LG will follow the trend and push the smartphone world into a rainbow of colors.

Gear for making outdoor fitness more enjoyable

Editor’s note: This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch earn affiliate commissions.     

Exercising outdoors comes with space, terrain and, if you’re lucky, a nice breeze that you don’t get in a gym. While fitness fanatics care most about completing a good workout, having the right gear to help with keeping track of progress — and getting on with your day when you’re done — makes a big difference.

We’ve gathered some of our favorite fitness wearables, headphones and accessories that improve and make outdoor workout routines more enjoyable.

Running headphones: Plantronics BackBeat Fit

We’ve tested 31 pairs of running headphones and for two years the Plantronics BackBeat Fit has remained our top recommendation. The ergonomics and comfort that the BackBeat Fit offer is impressive and they’re built to combat sweat, dust and rain. The cable that connects the earbuds is accommodating for heads of all sizes and it won’t bounce around or be an annoyance while you work out. Jogging at night or in a busy neighborhood will be a bit safer and easier to navigate as the BackBeat Fit has unsealed earbuds that are designed to allow you to hear your surroundings.

Everything I fit into my Arkel Bug for a day of working away from home. (Photo: Eve O’Neill)

Backpack pannier: Arkel Bug Pannier Backpack

Bike riding is a form of exercise that’s enjoyable for many. A bike is also a convenient mode of transportation, and equipping it with gear like a bike lock, rear rack and pannier can make heading out on the trail even more worthwhile. If in-between or after your ride you’d prefer to run errands, hang out or work, we recommend carrying your belongings in the Arkel Bug Pannier Backpack.

It’s spacious and has mesh material that repels water. We like that it’s durable enough to hold heavier items and it has a deep back pocket that’s big enough for a road or urban style helmet.                                                                                                                 

The Forerunner 235 (front) is thinner and sits more evenly on your wrist than its predecessor, the Forerunner 225.

GPS Running Watch: Garmin Forerunner 235

The ease of operating the Garmin Forerunner 235 makes it a great GPS running watch for beginners. Its optional apps and ability to track advanced metrics makes it great for experienced runners. You’ll be able to use data to create and follow customized workouts, as well as review details about intensity and volume.

The FR 235 delivers heart-rate tracking without the use of a chest strap and it isn’t as bulky as previous generations. Its Auto Pause feature helps with accurately tracking pace and running data when you make stops (i.e. at an intersection) during runs.

The Garmin Vivosport is the most versatile and accurate tracker we’ve found. (Photo: Michael Hession)

Fitness tracker: Garmin Vivosport

For a simple rundown of your heart rate, the number of steps you’ve taken and the distance you’ve traveled, a fitness tracker will do the trick. Our top pick, the Garmin Vivosport, has optional GPS tracking capabilities, accurate stats and overall solid performance that places it above a standard fitness tracker.

If keeping your phone on you for listening to music is a must, you can use the Vivosport to control playback and receive notifications. It measures stress levels, tracks sleep and automatically detects activity. When you’re lifting weights without a buddy, its strength-training mode can be enabled to do rep counting for you.

Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

Water bottle: Klean Kanteen Classic 27-ounce stainless-steel bottle with 3.0 Sport Cap

Whether your workout consists of high-intensity cardio or a casual walk in the park, it’s important to stay hydrated. Bringing along a light, durable water bottle means you won’t have to find a place to grab a drink and you’ll have a handy go-to when you need a refresher.

The Klean Kanteen Classic 27-Ounce Stainless Steel Bottle with 3.0 Sport Cap is our top pick for a steel water bottle because it’s easy to clean, has swappable caps and, more importantly, less than favorable tastes and smells don’t linger around. Its 1¾-inch mouth is big enough to fit ice cubes but not so big that water will spill on your new shoes if you take a sip while running.

This guide may have been updated by WirecutterNote from Wirecutter: When readers choose to buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn affiliate commissions that support our work.

Southeast Asia e-commerce startup iPrice raises $4M led by chat app Line’s VC arm

iPrice, a service that aggregates Southeast Asia’s e-commerce websites in a single destination, has pulled in new funding led by messaging app Line’s VC arm, Line Ventures.

The round is officially undisclosed, but TechCrunch understands from a source close to negotiations that it is worth around $4 million. Existing iPrice backers Cento Ventures (formerly known as Digital Media Partners) and Venturra Capital also took part in this round.

iPrice, which has its HQ in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, previously raised a $4 million Series A in late 2016. Today’s investment takes the startup to $9.7 million raised overall.

The company was started in 2015 in response to the growing number of e-commerce companies in Southeast Asia, and in particular the increasing number of vertical-specific options. Even though there are some giants, such as Alibaba’s Lazada, the region has a number of smaller players that can struggle for visibility. iPrice was initially a coupon site, before pivoting into an aggregation model which essentially acts as a destination for shoppers to then go on and purchase items from e-commerce retailers.

In a way, it is much like flight booking sites — such as Skyscanner — which ask a customer where they want to go before scouring the web for the best travel deals. iPrice does this for e-commerce in Southeast Asia. It hopes that simplifying things through a single destination portal can make it the go-to online buying site for the region, which now has over 330 million internet users — more than the population of the U.S. — according to a recent report co-authored by Google.

iPrice on the web, although its mobile app and mobile browser version are more used

Today, iPrice claims to offer over 500 million SKUs across Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. The company said that over 50 million people visited its site since December 2016, and this year alone it is aiming to grow to 150 million visitors.

The company said electronics has been a particular driver while, outside of working with e-commerce firms to drive business, it has developed a B2B business with media groups and brands, including Mediacorp in Singapore and Samsung in Indonesia, who pay to tailor its service. Last year, it developed an insightful report on the state of e-commerce in Southeast Asia.

The deal makes sense for Line Ventures because of the unique vantage point that iPrice occupies, while it also ties into parent company Line’s desire to go beyond being a messaging app and build out a mobile ecosystem. That’s seen it develop services such as food delivery, ride-hailing, payments and e-commerce, although it has struggled in the latter category. A relationship with iPrice might give it greater insight for future e-commerce ventures in Southeast Asia.

Leaked iPhone pics show glass back and headphone jack

The headphone jack could still have a future in an iPhone. These leaked pics show an iPhone SE 2 with a glass back and headphone jack. Like the current iPhone SE, the design seems to be a take on the classic iPhone 5. I dig it.

The leak also states the upcoming device sports wireless charging, which puts it inline with the iPhone 8 and iPhone X.

Rumors have long stated that Apple was working on an updated iPhone SE. The original was released in March 16 and updated a year later with improved specs. With a 4-inch screen, the iPhone SE is the smallest iPhone Apple offers and also the cheapest.

WWDC in early June is the next major Apple event and could play host for the launch of this phone. Last month, around the iPhone SE’s birthday, Apple held a special event in a Chicago school to launch an education-focused iPad. It’s logical that Apple pushed the launch of this new iPhone SE to WWDC to give the iPad event breathing room.

While Apple cut the headphone jack from its flagship devices, the SE looks to retain the connection. It makes sense. The low-cost iPhone is key for Apple in growing markets across the world where the last two models helped grow iOS’s market penetration. This is Apple’s low-cost offering and thus suggests Apple doesn’t expect buyers to also spring for its wireless earbuds.

If released at WWDC or later in the year, the iPhone SE looks to serve consumers who enjoy smaller phones with headphone jacks. That’s me.

The Skagen Falster is a high fashion Android wearable

Skagen is a well-know maker of thin and uniquely Danish watches. Founded in 1989, the company is now part of the Fossil group and, as such, has begin dabbling in both the analog with the Hagen and now Android Wear with the Falster. The Falster is unique in that it stuffs all of the power of a standard Android Wear device into a watch that mimics the chromed aesthetic of Skagen’s austere design while offering just enough features to make you a fashionable smartwatch wearer.

The Falster, which costs $275 and is available now, has a fully round digital OLED face which means you can read the time at all times. When the watch wakes up you can see an ultra bright white on black time-telling color scheme and then tap the crown to jump into the various features including Android Fit and the always clever Translate feature that lets you record a sentence and then show it the person in front of you.

You can buy it with a leather or metal band and the mesh steel model costs $20 extra.

Sadly, in order stuff the electronics into such a small case, Skagen did away with GPS, LTE connectivity, and even a heart-rate monitor. In other words if you were expecting a workout companion then the Falster isn’t the Android you’re looking for. However, if you’re looking for a bare-bones fashion smartwatch, Skagen ticks all the boxes.

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What you get from the Flasterou do get, however, is a low-cost, high-style Android Wear watch with most of the trimmings. I’ve worn this watch off and on few a few weeks now and, although I do definitely miss the heart rate monitor for workouts, the fact that this thing looks and acts like a normal watch 99% of the time makes it quite interesting. If obvious brand recognition nee ostentation are your goal, the Apple Watch or any of the Samsung Gear line are more your style. This watch, made by a company famous for its Danish understatement, offers the opposite of that.

Skagen offers a few very basic watch faces with the Skagen branding at various points on the dial. I particularly like the list face which includes world time or temperature in various spots around the world, offering you an at-a-glance view of timezones. Like most Android Wear systems you can change the display by pressing and holding on the face.

It lasts about a day on one charge although busy days may run down the battery sooner as notifications flood the screen. The notification system – essentially a little icon that appears over the watch face – sometimes fails and instead shows a baffling grey square. This is the single annoyance I noticed, UI-wise, when it came to the Falster. It works with both Android smartphones and iOS.

What this watch boils down to is an improved fitness tracker and notification system. If you’re wearing, say, a Fitbit, something like the Skagen Falster offers a superior experience in a very chic package. Because the watch is fairly compact (at 42mm I won’t say it’s small but it would work on a thinner wrist) it takes away a lot of the bulk of other smartwatches and, more important, doesn’t look like a smartwatch. Those of use who don’t want to look like we’re wearing robotic egg sacs on our wrists will enjoy that aspect of Skagen’s effort, even without all the trimmings we expect from a modern smartwatch.

Skagen, like so many other watch manufacturers, decided if it couldn’t been the digital revolution it would join it. The result is the Falster and, to a lesser degree, their analog collections. Whether or not traditional watchmakers will survive the 21st century is still up in the air but, as evidenced by this handsome and well-made watch, they’re at least giving it the old Danish try.

India overtakes the US to become the world’s second largest smartphone market

 Move over America, India is now the world’s second largest smartphone market. That’s according to a new report from Canalys which claims smartphone shipments in India crossed the 40 million mark for the first time in Q3 2017 courtesy of 23 percent annual growth. That means that India has overtaken the U.S. on sales with only China ahead of it. Given the huge gulf in populations… Read More

The SpiderMAV does whatever a spider can, spins a web, any size

 Researchers at the Imperial College London’s Aerial Robotics Laboratory have created the SpiderMAV – a robot that stabilizes itself by shooting out multiple strands of rope that can stick to magnetic surfaces. The drone, which is a standard quadcopter, has a built-in rope gun that blasts out little connectors. The drone then pulls against the ropes, stabilizing itself in flight.… Read More