Small satellite startup Kepler opens sign-ups for its IoT developer kits

Kepler Communications, the Toronto-based startup that’s focused on developing and deploying shoebox-sized satellites to provide telecommunications services, is opening up registration for those interested in getting their first developer kits. These developer kits, designed to help potential commercial customers take advantage of its Internet of Things (IoT) narrowband connectivity deploying next year, will then be made available to purchase for elect partners next year.

This kind of early access is designed to give companies interested in using the kind of connectivity Kepler intends on providing a head start on testing and integration. Kepler‘s service is designed to provide global coverage using a single network for IoT operators, at low costs relative to the market, for applications including tracking shipping containers, railway networks, livestock and crops and much more. Kepler says that its IoT network, which will be made up of nanosatellites designed specifically for this purpose it plans to launch throughout next year and beyond, is aimed at industries where you don’t need high-bandwidth, as you would for say HD consumer video streaming, but where coverage across large, often remote areas on a consistent basis is key.

IoT connectivity provided by constellations of orbital satellites is an increasing are of focus and investment, as large industries look to modernize their monitoring and tracking operations. Startup Swarm got permission from the FCC to launch its 150-small satellite constellation earlierr this month, for instance, to establish a service to address similar needs.

Kepler, founded in 2015, has raised over $20 million in funding so far, and has launched two small satellites thus far, including one in January and one in November of 2018. The company announced a contract with ISK and GK Launch Services to deploy two more sometime in the middle of next year aboard a Soyuz rocket.

FCC proposes rules requiring telcos remove Huawei, ZTE equipment

The Federal Communications Commission said it will move ahead with proposals to ban telecommunications giants from using Huawei and ZTE networking equipment, which the agency says poses a “national security threat.”

The two-part proposal revealed Monday would first bar telecoms giants from using funds it receives from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, used by the agency to subsidize service to low-income households, from buying equipment from the Chinese telecom equipment makers.

The second proposal would mandate certain telecom giants remove any banned equipment they may have already installed.

In a statement, the FCC said it would offer a reimbursement program to help carriers transition to “more trusted” suppliers.

“We need to make sure our networks won’t harm our national security, threaten our economic security or undermine our values,” said Republican-appointed FCC chairman Ajit Pai in remarks. “The Chinese government has shown repeatedly that it is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to do just that.”

On a background call with reporters, the FCC did not say how much of the Universal Service Fund has been used to purchase equipment from could-be banned companies, but noted that “a number” of smaller rural wireless carriers have used the fund to buy Huawei equipment.

The FCC said Huawei and ZTE were already on the list of companies that pose a threat, but that the draft order would “establish a process for designating other suppliers that pose a national security threat,” potentially opening the door for new additions.

It’s the latest move by the government to crack down on technology providers seen as a potential homeland security threat. Chief among the fears are that Huawei and ZTE are subject to Chinese laws, and could be told to secretly comply with demands from Chinese intelligence services, which could put Americans’ data at risk of surveillance or espionage.

The claims first arose in 2012 following a House inquiry, which labeled the company a national security threat.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration banned federal agencies from buying equipment from Huawei and ZTE, as well as Hytera and Hikvision.

Both Huawei and ZTE have long denied the allegations.

Chairman Pai said in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal: “When it comes to 5G and America’s security, we can’t afford to take a risk and hope for the best. We need to make sure our networks won’t harm our national security, threaten our economic security or undermine our values.”

Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement: “The FCC is moving forward after more than a year and a half with its proposal to ensure that our universal service fund, which supports deployment in rural areas, will not be used to purchase insecure network equipment. But we need cybersecurity policies that target all our network providers—not just our universal service recipients.”

“In addition, we need to be mindful that in a global economy, our networks will still connect to insecure equipment abroad. So we should start researching how we can build networks that can withstand connection to equipment vulnerabilities around the world, including virtualizing the radio access part of our networks,” said Rosenworcel.

The FCC’s proposals are expected to be voted on during a meeting on November 19.

Max-Q: This week in space

Space is becoming a major area of startup and commercial investment, and so I’ve decided to start providing a weekly round-up of the biggest news in aerospace, space science and space-related technologies. Let me know if you appreciate this or have suggestions, and I’ll make sure it evolves as needed to be useful resource.

This week, there was an abundance of spacesuit news, and signs from multiple operators that there’s going to be an orbital traffic boom in the immediate future. Also, we’re heading into the annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC) this coming week, so expect a lot more news starting tomorrow.

1. NASA unveils its Artemis-generation spacesuits

NASA showed off a brand new generation of spacesuit, including the one that the first American woman and next American man to set foot on the Moon will don for that historic moment. The new Artemis suits are designed to scale from essentially the smallest to the largest possible adult human frame, which NASA touts as a way to make the astronaut program more accessible to a wider range of Americans. The agency should be going out of its way to fix that, because of what happened that led to item #2 this week.

For the first time, NASA is looking to outsource the full production of these Artemis-generation spacesuits (including the Orion survival suit, which was also revealed today and will be worn only during flight aboard the Orion capsule). To that end, it has put out a request for input from industry about their design and development ahead of setting up a proper RFP.

2. NASA astronauts Christina H. Koch and Jessica Meir complete historic first all-woman spacewalk

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NASA astronauts Christina H. Koch and Jessica Meir

As I alluded above, there was a very good reason that NASA really emphasized how inclusive its Artemis suit designs are: The agency had to cancel a first all-woman spacewalk earlier this year because it didn’t have the right amount of properly sized spacesuits on board the International Space Station. It sent one up in June, however, and that historic moment happened this past week, with Koch and Meir performing a roughly seven-hour spacewalk to repair a power controller.

3. SpaceX applies for permission to launch 30,000 more Starlink satellites

That’s on top of the 12,000 it’s already had cleared, which makes for a total potential constellation size of 42,000. That’s about 8x the number of satellites currently in orbit, across all orbital zones. It’s a move that is definitely raising the ire of both industry and space researchers, because it’ll make it a lot more complicated to ensure orbital spacecraft avoid collisions, and it could potentially obscure the view of the stars from Earth. SpaceX says it has taken steps to ensure it can avoid both problems, but not everyone is convinced.

4. Swarm gets the ‘OK’ for its 150-satellite constellation

Meanwhile, startup Swarm has been granted FCC approval to deploy its own, much-smaller constellation of 150 satellites. Swarm isn’t competing directly with SpaceX’s Starlink – it wants to provide low-bandwidth IoT connectivity. And while it isn’t looking to put up a huge volume of spacecraft, there was some concern that its toaster-sized satellites might be too small to track and present a risk that way.

5. Rocket Lab’s swap launch is a success

New Zealand-born and lately U.S.-headquartered Rocket Lab was successful in launching its fifth Electron rocket this year. The startup’s success was more a proof point for its business model than its technology, however, since the payload that flew aboard this mission was actually one that wasn’t slated to go up until much later in the queue. Rocket Lab’s original client for this one had to drop out due to unfortunate circumstances, and Rocket Lab was able to get client Astro Digital an earlier ride. This kind of late-stage payload swap has not typically been a strength of the established commercial space launch industry.

6. Under Armour built some fancy tracksuits for space

IMG 20191016 103752 1 1Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will begin ferrying wealthy paying tourists to the very edge of space next year, if all goes to plan, and now we know what they’ll be wearing when they do: Under Armour. The sportswear company and Branson’s space enterprise unveiled the new suits at a flashy special event featuring the first tourists who have reserved $250,000 tickets aboard Virgin Galactic’s atmosphere-skimming spacecraft.

7. How Lockheed Martin’s Venture arm spends its $200 million in available funding

Lockheed Martin has been in the commercial space business since there has been a commercial space business to be in, and around a decade ago it established a corporate venture fund to make strategic bets on startups. I sat down with the fund’s GM and Executive Director J. Christopher Moran to talk about what the fund looks for in startups – and the industry giant is a lot more interested in early stage companies that you might have thought. Extra Crunch Subscription required.

New Nvidia Shield Android TV streaming device leaks via Amazon listing

The fact that Nvidia is updating its Shield TV hardware has already been telegraphed via an FCC filing, but a leak earlier today paints much more of a detailed picture. An Amazon listing for a new Nvidia Shield Pro set-top streaming device went live briefly before being taken down, showing a familiar hardware design and a new remote control and listing some of the forthcoming feature updates new to this generation of hardware.

The listing, captured by the eagle-eyed Android TV Rumors and shared via Twitter, includes a $199.99 price point, specs that include 3GB of RAM, 2x USB ports, a new Nvidia Tegra X1+ chip and 16GB of on-board storage. In addition to the price, the Amazon listing had a release date for the new hardware of October 28.

If this Amazon page is accurate (and it looks indeed like an official product page that one would expect from Nvidia), the new Shield TV’s processor will be “up to 25% faster than the previous generation,” and will offer “next-generation AI upscaling” for improving the quality of HD video on 4K-capable displays.

It’ll offer support for Dolby Vision HDR, plus surround sound with Dolby Atmos support, and provide “the most 4K HDR content of any streaming media player.” There’s also built-in Google Assistant support, which was offered on the existing hardware, and it’ll work with Alexa for hands-free control.

The feature photos for the listing show a new remote control, which has a pyramid-like design, as well as a lot more dedicated buttons on the face. There’s backlighting, and an IR blaster for TV control, as well as a “built-in lost remote locator” according to the now-removed Amazon page.

This Amazon page certainly paints a comprehensive picture of what to expect, and it looks like a compelling update to be sure. The listing is gone now, however, so stay tuned to find out if this is indeed the real thing, and if this updated streamer will indeed be available soon.

UPDATE: Yet another Nvidia leak followed the first, this time through retailer Newegg (via The Verge). This is different, however, and features a Shield TV device (no “Pro” in the name) that has almost all the same specs, but a much smaller design that includes a microSD card, and seems to have half the amount of on-board storage (8GB versus 16GB) and a retail price of around $150.

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SpaceX to share Starship progress update Saturday as it continues prototype construction

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was in Boca Chica, Texas over the weekend to oversee key construction activities in the assembly of the company’s newest Starship prototype. Musk will deliver an update on Starship, which will likely recap progress to date and provide a more detailed roadmap of SpaceX’s plans for the future of its next-generation spaceship and launch system.

Musk shared photos of the prototype construction in progress, with the so-called “Mk1” prototype getting its rear moving fins, which are located on the bottom half of the rocket and which work together with fins located on the yet-to-be-installed top half of the spacecraft to control its stability during entry and landing.

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The Starship Mk1 prototype will be the first to represent the final vehicle in its orbital-class configuration, after a ‘Starhopper’ prototype SpaceX produced initially accomplished the goal of testing one of the new Raptor engines and demonstrating low-altitude flight, control and landing capabilities. That stubbier version of Starship is retired after doing both a short and a longer ‘hop’ test flight over the past two months, and now SpaceX will look to test higher altitude and longer duration flights, using multiple Raptor engines, with the Starship Mk1 and Mk2 prototypes currently under development at Boca Chica, and in another SpaceX facility in Florida.

Musk has said that Starship Mk1 already has three Raptor engines installed on the vehicle, and the company has filed documents with the FCC required for it to receive permission for the communications components of its first test launches. We should find out more concrete details as of Saturday, and TechCrunch will have all the info here as it happens.

 

SpaceX ‘getting ready’ to fly orbital Starship design with new FCC filing

SpaceX is taking the steps necessary to begin test flying the orbital-class version of its Starship spacecraft, with new documents filed by the company (via Teslarati) with the FCC seeking necessary permissions for it to communicate with the prototype while it’s in flight.

The company filed documents with the U.S. regulatory agency this week in advance of the flight, which lists a max altitude of 74,000 feet, which is a far cry from Earth orbit but still a much greater distance vs. the 500 or so feet achieved by the squat ‘Starhopper’ demonstration and test vehicle that SpaceX has been actively operating in preparation for Starship .

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed that prep was underway via tweet. Musk has previously said that he hoped to follow the Starhopper’s most recent and final successful test quickly with tests of the full-scale vehicle. Like with that low-altitude test, SpaceX will aim to launch and land the Starhopper, with touch down planned just a short distance away.

Assembly and construction of the Starship prototype looks to be well underway, and Musk recently teased a Starship update event for September 28, which is likely when we’ll see this prototype assembled and ready to go ahead of its planned October first test flight window.

Starship is the next generation of SpaceX spacecraft, designed for maximum reusability, and with the aim of creating one vehicle that can serve the needs of current and future customers, eventually replacing both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Starship is also a key ingredient in Musk’s ambitious plan to reach and establish a continuing human presence on Mars.

AT&T and T-Mobile team up to fight scam robocalls

Two major U.S. carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile, announced this morning a plan to team up to protect their respective customer bases from the scourge of scam robocalls. The two companies will today begin to roll out new cross-network call authentication technology based on the STIR/SHAKEN standards — a sort of universal caller ID system designed to stop illegal caller ID spoofing.

Robocalls have become a national epidemic. In 2018, U.S. mobile users received nearly 48 million robocalls — or more than 150 calls per adult, the carriers noted.

A huge part of the problem is that these calls now often come in with a spoofed phone number, making it hard for consumers to screen out unwanted calls on their own. That’s led to a rise in robocall blocking and screening apps. Even technology companies have gotten involved, with Google introducing a new AI call screener in Android and Apple rolling out Siri-powered spam call detection with iOS 13.

To help fight the call spoofing problem, the industry put together a set of standards called STIR/SHAKEN (Secure Telephony Identity Revisited / Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs), which effectively signs calls as “legitimate” as they travel through the interconnected phone networks.

However, the industry has been slow to roll out the system, which prompted the FCC to finally step in.

In November 2018, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote to U.S. mobile operators, asking them to outline their plans around the implementation of the STIR/SHAKEN standards. The regulator also said that it would step in to mandate the implementation if the carriers didn’t meet an end-of-2019 deadline to get their call authentication systems in place.

Today’s news from AT&T and T-Mobile explains how the two will work together to authenticate calls across their networks. By implementing STIR/SHAKEN, calls will have their Caller ID signed as legitimate by the originating carrier, then validated by other carriers before they reach the consumer. Spoofed calls would fail this authentication process, and not be marked as “verified.”

As more carriers participate in this sort of authentication, more calls can be authenticated.

However, this system alone won’t actually block the spam calls — it just gives the recipient more information. In addition, devices will have to support the technology, as well, in order to display the new “verification” information.

T-Mobile earlier this year was first to launch a caller verification system on the Samsung Galaxy Note9, and today it still only works with select Android handsets from Samsung and LG. AT&T meanwhile, announced in March it was working with Comcast to exchange authenticated calls between two separate networks — a milestone in terms of cooperation between two carriers. T-Mobile and Comcast announced their own agreement in April.

The news also follows a statement by Chairman Pai that says the FCC will sign off to approve a T-Mobile/Sprint merger, as has been expected.

SNES controller for Switch shows up in FCC filing, hinting at SNES games for Nintendo Online

Nintendo looks set to release wireless SNES controllers for the Nintendo Switch, which likely means it’ll also be bringing classic SNES titles to its Nintendo Online virtual gaming library. The news comes via an FCC filing (hat tip to Eurogamer) , which includes a diagram of what looks very clearly to be the backside of a Super Nintendo-style wireless controller.

The diagram includes a model number that uses the ‘HAC’ code that Nintendo employs to designate Switch accessories, and past history suggests that the arrival of retro-inspired hardware for the Switch also means throwback games are on their way. Nintendo launched wireless NES controllers for the Nintendo Switch in September, and they arrived alongside NES games delivered via Nintendo Online as free perks for subscribers.

The FCC filing is more or less concrete proof that Nintendo intends to release something, but the rest is speculation (if very likely, informed speculation) at this point. Still, it seems inevitable that Nintendo bring its SNES library to the Switch, especially since it did so for the Wii Virtual Console before.

Reports say White House has drafted an order putting the FCC in charge of monitoring social media

The White House is contemplating issuing an executive order that would widen its attack on the operations of social media companies.

The White House has prepared an executive order called “Protecting Americans from Online Censorship” that would give the Federal Communications Commission oversight of how Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies monitor and manage their social networks, according to a CNN report.

Under the order, which has not yet been announced and could be revised, the FCC would be tasked with developing new regulations that would determine when and how social media companies filter posts, videos or articles on their platforms.

The draft order also calls for the Federal Trade Commission to take those new policies into account when investigating or filing lawsuits against technology companies, according to the CNN report.

Social media censorship has been a perennial talking point for President Donald Trump and his administration. In May, the White House set up a tip line for people to provide evidence of social media censorship and a systemic bias against conservative media.

In the executive order, the White House says it received more than 15,000 complaints about censorship by the technology platforms. The order also includes an offer to share the complaints with the Federal Trade Commission.

As part of the order, the Federal Trade Commission would be required to open a public complaint docket and coordinate with the Federal Communications Commission on investigations of how technology companies curate their platforms — and whether that curation is politically agnostic.

Under the proposed rule, any company whose monthly user base includes more than one-eighth of the U.S. population would be subject to oversight by the regulatory agencies. A roster of companies subject to the new scrutiny would include Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, Snap and Pinterest .

At issue is how broadly or narrowly companies are protected under the Communications Decency Act, which was part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Social media companies use the Act to shield against liability for the posts, videos or articles that are uploaded from individual users or third parties.

The Trump administration aren’t the only politicians in Washington are focused on the laws that shield social media platforms from legal liability. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took technology companies to task earlier this year in an interview with Recode.

The criticisms may come from different sides of the political spectrum, but their focus on the ways in which tech companies could use Section 230 of the Act is the same.

The White House’s executive order would ask the FCC to disqualify social media companies from immunity if they remove or limit the dissemination of posts without first notifying the user or third party that posted the material, or if the decision from the companies is deemed anti-competitive or unfair.

The FTC and FCC had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Google’s Pixel 4 smartphone will have motion control and face unlock

Google’s Pixel 4 is coming out later this year, and it’s getting the long reveal treatment thanks to a decision this year from Google to go ahead and spill some of the beans early, rather than saving everything for one big final unveiling closer to availability. A new video posted by Google today about the forthcoming Pixel 4 (which likely won’t actually be available until fall) shows off some features new to this generation: Motion control and face unlock.

The new “Motion Sense” feature in the Pixel 4 will detect waves of your hand and translate them into software control, including skipping songs, snoozing alarms and quieting incoming phone call alerts, with more planned features to come, according to Google. It’s based on Soli, a radar-based fine motion detection technology that Google first revealed at its I/O annual developer conference in 2016. Soli can detect very fine movements, including fingers pinched together to mimic a watch-winding motion, and it got approval from the FCC in January, hinting it would finally be arriving in production devices this year.

Pixel 4 is the first shipping device to include Soli, and Google says it’ll be available in “select Pixel countries” at launch (probably due to similar approvals requirements wherever it rolls out to consumers).

Google also teased “Face unlock,” something it has supported in Android previously – but Google is doing it very differently than it has been handled on Android in the past with the Pixel 4. Once again, Soli is part of its implementation, turning on the face unlock sensors in the device as it detects your hand reaching to pick up the device. Google says this should mean that the phone will be unlocked by the time you’re ready to use it, since it does this all on the fly, and works from pretty much any authentication.

Face unlock will be supported for authorizing payments and logging into Android apps, as well, and all of the facial recognition processing done for face unlock will occur on the device – a privacy-oriented feature that’s similar to how Apple handles its own Face ID. In fact, Google will also be storing all the facial recognition data securely in its own dedicated on-device Titan M security chip, another move similar to Apple’s own approach.

Google made the Pixel 4 official and tweeted photos (or maybe photorealistic renders) of the new smartphone back in June, bucking the trend of keeping things unconfirmed until an official reveal closer to release. Based on this update, it seems likely we can expect to learn more about the new smartphone ahead of its availability, which is probably going to happen sometime around October based on past behavior.