Europe’s recharged antitrust chief makes her five-year pitch to be digital EVP

Europe’s competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, set for a dual role in the next Commission, faced three hours of questions from members of four committees in the European Parliament this afternoon, as MEPs got their chance to interrogate her priorities for a broader legislative role that will shape pan-EU digital strategy for the next five years.

As we reported last month, Vestager is headed for an expanded role in the incoming European Commission with president-elect Ursula von der Leyen picking her as an executive VP overseeing a new portfolio called “Europe fit for the digital age.”

She is also set to retain her current job as competition commissioner. And a question she faced more than once during today’s hearing in front of MEPs, who have a confirming vote on her appointment, was whether the combined portfolio wasn’t at risk of a conflict of interest?

Or whether she “recognized the tension between objective competition enforcement and industrial policy interests in your portfolio,” as one MEP put it, before asking whether she would “build Chinese walls” within it to avoid crossing the streams of enforcement and policymaking.

Vestager responded by saying it was the first question she’d asked herself on being offered the role — before laying out flat reasoning that “the independence in law enforcement is non-negotiable.”

“It has always been true that the commissioner for competition has been part of the College. And every decision we take also in competition is a collegial decision,” she said. “What justifies that is of course that every decision is subject to not one but 2x legal scrutiny if need be. And the latest confirmation of this set up was two judgments in 2011 — where it was looked into whether this set up… is in accordance with our human rights and that has been found to be so. So the set up, as such, is as it should be.”

The commissioner and commissioner-designate responded capably to a wide range of questions reflecting the broad span of her new responsibilities — fielding questions on areas including digital taxation; platform power and regulation; a green new deal; AI and data ethics; digital skills and research; and small business regulation and funding, as well as queries around specific pieces of legislation (such as ePrivacy and Copyright Reform). 

Climate change and digital transformation were singled out in her opening remarks as two of Europe’s biggest challenges — ones she said will require both joint working and a focus on fairness.

Europe is filled with highly skilled people, we have excellent infrastructure, fair and effective laws. Our Single Market gives European businesses the room to grow and innovate, and be the best in the world at what they do,” she said at the top of her pitch to MEPs. “So my pledge is not to make Europe more like China, or America. My pledge is to help make Europe more like herself. To build on our own strengths and values, so our society is both strong and fair. For all Europeans.”

Building trust in digital services

In her opening remarks Vestager said that if confirmed she will work to build trust in digital services — suggesting regulation on how companies collect, use and share data might be necessary to ensure people’s data is used for public good, rather than to concentrate market power.

It’s a suggestion that won’t have gone unnoticed in Silicon Valley.

“I will work on a Digital Services Act that includes upgrading our liability and safety rules for digital platforms, services and products,” she pledged. “We may also need to regulate the way that companies collect and use and share data — so it benefits the whole of our society.”

“As global competition gets tougher we’ll need to work harder to preserve a level playing field,” she also warned.

But asked directly during the hearing whether Europe’s response to platform power might include breaking up overbearing tech giants, Vestager signaled caution — saying such an intrusive intervention should only be used as a last resort, and that she has an obligation to try less drastic measures first. (It’s a position she’s set out before in public.)

“You’re right to say fines are not doing the trick and fines are not enough,” she said in response to one questioner on the topic. Another MEP complained fines on tech giants are essentially just seen as an “operating expense.”

Vestager went on to cite the Google AdSense antitrust case as an example of enforcement that hasn’t succeeded because it has failed to restore competition. “Some of the things that we will of course look into is do we need even stronger remedies for competition to pick up in these markets,” she said. “They stopped their behavior. That’s now two years ago. The market hasn’t picked up. So what do we do in those kind of cases? We have to consider remedies that are much more far reaching.

“Also before we reach for the very, very far reaching remedy to break up a company — we have that tool in our toolbox but obviously it is very far reaching… My obligation is to ensure that we do the least intrusive thing in order to make competition come back. And in that respect, obviously, I am willing to explore what do we need more, in competition cases, for competition to come back.”

Competition law enforcers in Europe will have to consider how to make sure rules enforce fair competition in what Vestager described as a “new phenomenon” of “competition for a market, not just in a market” — meaning that whoever wins the competition becomes “the de facto rule setter in this market.”

Regulating platforms on transparency and fairness is something on which European legislators have already agreed — earlier this year. Though that platform to business regulation has yet to come into force. “But it will also be a question for us as competition law enforcers,” Vestager told MEPs.

Making use of existing antitrust laws but doing so with greater speed and agility, rather than a drastic change of competition approach, appeared to be her main message — with the commissioner noting she’d recently dusted off interim measures in an ongoing case against chipmaker Broadcom; the first time such an application has been made for 20 years.

“It’s a good reflection of the fact that we find it a very high priority to speed up what we do,” she said, adding: “There’s a limit as to how fast law enforcement can work, because we will never compromise on due process — on the other hand we should be able to work as fast as possible.”

Her responses to MEPs on platform power favored greater regulation of digital markets (potentially including data), markets which have become dominated by data-gobbling platforms — rather than an abrupt smashing of the platforms themselves. So not an Elizabeth Warren “existential” threat to big tech, then, but from a platform point of view Vestager’s preferred approach might just sum to death by a thousand legal cuts.

“One of course could consider what kind of tools do we need?,” she opined, talking about market reorganization as a means of regulating platform power. “[There are] different ways of trying to re-organize a marketplace if the competition authority finds that the way it’s working is not beneficial for fair competition. And those are tools that can be considered in order to sort of re-organize before harm is done. Then you don’t punish because no infringement is found but you can give very direct almost orders… as to how a market should be organized.”

Artificial intelligence with a purpose

On artificial intelligence — which the current Commission has been working on developing a framework for ethical design and application — Vestager’s opening remarks contained a pledge to publish proposals for this framework — to “make sure artificial intelligence is used ethically, to support human decisions and not undermine them” — and to do so within her first 100 days in office.

That led one MEP to question whether it wasn’t too ambitious and hasty to rush to control a still emerging technology. “It is very ambitious,” she responded. “And one of the things that I think about a lot is of course if we want to build trust then you have to listen.

“You cannot just say I have a brilliant idea, I make it happen all over. You have to listen to people to figure out what would be the right approach here. Also because there is a balance. Because if you’re developing something new then — exactly as you say — you should be very careful not to over-regulate.

“For me, to fulfill these ambitions, obviously we need the feedback from the many, many businesses who have taken upon them to use the assessment list and the principles [recommended by the Commission’s HLEG on AI] of how to create AI you can trust. But I also think, to some degree, we have to listen fast. Because we have to talk with a lot of different people in order to get it right. But it is a reflection of the fact that we are in hurry. We really need to get our AI strategy off the ground and these proposals will be part of that.”

Europe could differentiate itself — and be “a world leader” — by developing “AI with a purpose,” Vestager suggested, pointing to potential applications for the tech such as in healthcare, transportation and combating climate change, which she said would also work to further European values.

“I don’t think that we can be world leaders without ethical guidelines,” she said of AI. “I think we will lose it if we just say no let’s do as they do in the rest of the world — let’s pool all the data from everyone, no matter where it comes from, and let’s just invest all our money. I think we will lose out because the AI you create because you want to serve humans. That’s a different sort of AI. This is AI with a purpose.”

On digital taxation — where Vestager will play a strategic role, working with other commissioners — she said her intention is to work toward trying to achieve global agreement on reforming rules to take account of how data and profits flow across borders. But if that’s not possible she said Europe is prepared to act alone — and quickly — by the end of 2020.

“Surprising things can happen,” she said, discussing the challenge of achieving even an EU-wide consensus on tax reform, and noting how many pieces of tax legislation have already been passed in the European Council by unanimity. “So it’s not undoable. The problem is we have a couple of very important pieces of legislation that have not been passed.

“I’m still kind of hopeful in the working way that we can get a global agreement on digital taxation. If that is not the case, obviously we will table and push for a European solution. And I admire the Member States who’ve said we want a European or global solution, but if that isn’t to be we’re willing to do that by ourselves in order to be able to answer to all the businesses who pay their taxes.”

Vestager also signaled support for exploring the possibility of amending Article 116 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, which relates to competition-based distortion of the internal market, in order to enable tax reform to be passed by a qualified majority, instead of unanimously — as a potential strategy for getting past the EU’s own current blocks to tax reform.

“I think definitely we should start exploring what would that entail,” she said in response to a follow-up question. “I don’t think it’s a given that it would be successful, but it’s important that we take the different tools that the treaty gives us and use these tools if need be.”

During the hearing she also advocated for a more strategic use of public procurement by the EU and Member States — to push for more funding to go into digital research and business innovation that benefits common interests and priorities.

“It means working together with Member States on important projects of common European interest. We will bring together entire value chains, from universities, suppliers, manufacturers all the way to those who recycle the raw material that is used in manufacturing,” she said.

“Public procurement in Europe is… a lot of money,” she added. “And if we also use that to ask for solutions well then we can have also maybe smaller businesses to say I can actually do that. So we can make an artificial intelligence strategy that will push in all different sectors of society.”

She also argued that Europe’s industrial strategy needs to reach beyond its own Single Market — signaling a tougher approach to market access to those outside the bloc.

And implying she might favor less of a free-for-all when it comes to access to publicly funded data — if the value it contains risks further entrenching already data-rich, market-dominating giants at the expense of smaller local players.

“As we get more and more interconnected, we are more dependent and affected by decisions made by others. Europe is the biggest trading partner of some 80 countries, including China and the U.S. So we are in a strong position to work for a level global playing field. This includes pursuing our proposal to reform the World Trade Organization. It includes giving ourselves the right tools to make sure that foreign state ownership and subsidies do not undermine fair competition in Europe,” she said.

“We have to figure out what constitutes market power,” she went on, discussing how capacity to collect data can influence market position, regardless of whether it’s directly linked to revenue. “We will expand our insights as to how this works. We have learned a lot from some of the merger cases that we have been doing to see how data can work as an asset for innovation but also as a barrier to entry. Because if you don’t have the right data it’s very difficult to produce the services that people are actually asking for. And that becomes increasingly critical when it comes to AI. Because once you have it then you can do even more.

“I think we have to discuss what we do with all the amazing publicly funded data that we make available. It’s not to be overly biblical but we shouldn’t end up in a situation where ‘those who have shall more be given.’ If you have a lot already then you also have the capabilities and the technical insight to make very good use of it. And we do have amazing data in Europe. Just think about what can be assessed in our supercomputers… they are world-class… And second when it comes to both [EU sat-nav] Galileo and [earth observation program] Copernicus. Also here data is available. Which is an excellent thing for the farmer doing precision farming and saving in pesticides and seeds and all of that. But are really happy that we also make it available for those who could actually pay for it themselves?

“I think that is a discussion that we will have to have — to make sure that not just the big ones keep taking for themselves but the smaller ones having a fair chance.”

Rights and wrongs

During the hearing Vestager was also asked whether she supported the controversial EU copyright reform.

She said she supports the “compromise” achieved — arguing that the legislation is important to ensure artists are rewarded for the work they do — but stressed that it will be important for the incoming Commission to ensure Member States’ implementations are “coherent” and that fragmentation is avoided.

She also warned against the risk of the same “divisive” debates being reopened afresh, via other pieces of legislation.

“I think now that the copyright issue has been settled it shouldn’t be reopened in the area of the Digital Services Act,” she said. “I think it’s important to be very careful not to do that because then we would lose speed again when it comes to actually making sure there is remuneration for those who hold copyright.”

Asked in a follow-up question how, as the directive gets implemented by EU Member States, she will ensure freedom of speech is protected from upload filter technologies — which is what critics of the copyright reform argue the law effectively demands that platforms deploy — Vestager hedged, saying: “[It] will take a lot of discussions and back and forth between Member States and Commission, probably. Also this parliament will follow this very closely. To make sure that we get an implementation in Member States that are similar.”

“One has to be very careful,” she added. “Some of the discussions that we had during the adoption of the copyright directive will come back. Because these are crucial debates. Because it’s a debate between the freedom of speech and actually protecting people who have rights. Which is completely justified… Just as we have fundamental values we also have fundamental discussions because it’s always a balancing act how to get this right.”

The commissioner also voiced support for passing the ePrivacy Regulation. “It will be high priority to make sure that we’re able to pass that,” she told MEPs, dubbing the reform an important building block.

“One of the things I hope is that we don’t just always decentralize to the individual citizens,” she added.  “Now you have rights, now you just go and force them. Because I know I have rights but one of my frustrations is how to enforce them? Because I am to read page after page after page and if I’m not tired and just forget about it then I sign up anyway. And that doesn’t really make sense. We still have to do more for people to feel empowered to protect themselves.”

She was also asked for her views on adtech-driven microtargeting — as a conduit for disinformation campaigns and political interference — and more broadly as so-called “surveillance capitalism.” “Are you willing to tackle adtech-driven business models as a whole?,” she was asked by one MEP. “Are you willing to take certain data exploitation practices like microtargeting completely off the table?”

Hesitating slightly before answering, Vestager said: “One of the things I have learned from surveillance capitalism and these ideas is it’s not you searching Google it is Google searching you. And that gives a very good idea about not only what you want to buy but also what you think. So we have indeed a lot to do. I am in complete agreement with what has been done so far — because we needed to do something fast. So the Code of Practice [on disinformation] is a very good start to make sure that we get things right… So I think we have a lot to build on.

“I don’t know yet what should be the details of the Digital Services Act. And I think it’s very important that we make the most of what we have since we’re in a hurry. Also to take stock of what I would call digital citizens’ rights — the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] — that we can have national authorities enforce that in full, and hopefully also to have a market response so that we have privacy by design and being able to choose that. Because I think it’s very important that we also get a market response to say, well, you can actually do things in a very different way than just to allow yourself to feel forced to sign up to whatever terms and conditions that are put in front of you.

“I myself find it very thought-provoking if you have the time just once in a while to read the T&Cs now when they are obliged, thanks to this parliament, to write in a way that you can actually understand that makes it even more scary. And very often it just makes me think, thanks but no thanks. And that of course is the other side of that coin. Yes, regulation. But also us as citizens to be much more aware of what kind of life we want to live and what kind of democracy we want to have. Because it cannot just be digital. Then I think we will lose it.”

In her own plea to MEPs, Vestager urged them to pass the budget so that the Commission can get on with all the pressing tasks in front of it. “We have proposed that we increase our investments quite a lot in order to be able to do all this kind of stuff,” she said.

“First things first, I’m sorry to say this, we need the money. We need funding. We need the programs. We need to be able to do something so that people can see that businesses can use funds to invest in innovation, so that researchers can make their networks work all over Europe. That they get the funding actually to get there. And in that respect I hope that you will help push for the multi-annual financial framework to be in place. I don’t think that Europeans have any patience for us when it comes to these different things that we would like to be real. That is now, that is here.”

NASA’s first all-electric experimental X-plane is ready for testing

NASA will fly a crewed X-plane, one of the experimental aircraft it creates to test various technologies, for the first time in two decades in the near future. This X-plane, the X-57 Maxwell to be exact, is significant for another reason, too: It’s the first fully electric experimental plane that NASA will fly.

The delivery of the X-57 Maxwell to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California means that they can begin ground testing, which will then be followed by flight testing once they confirm through the ground testing phase that it’s flight-ready. This all-electric X-57 is just one of a number of modified vehicles that will not only help NASA researchers test electric propulsion systems for aircraft, but will also help them set up standards, design practices and certification plans alongside industry for forthcoming electric aerial transportation options, including the growing industry springing up around electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft for short-distance transportation.

NASA plans to share the results of its testing and flights of the all-electric X-57, as well as its other modified versions, with industry and other agencies and regulatory bodies. The X-plane project also provides another way for NASA to work towards a number of technical challenges that will have big benefits in terms of everyday commercial aerial transportation, like boosting vehicle efficiency and lowering noise to develop planes that are far less disturbing to people on the ground.

ClimateTech is the new hot space for investors in a warming planet

How do you attract the attention of a prince? Aside from being Meghan Markle, of course. One answer came recently in the form of Prince Harry’s backing of a new initiative designed to make offsetting the carbon from your airline flights a properly mainstream idea.

For Harry, the initiative had a double whammy. It might finally make carbon offsetting cool, especially if the royals and the celebs are doing it. And it had the added bonus of taking the heat off royals for jetting around the world (sorry!).

But the Travalyst initiative doesn’t stop at offsetting. It will also address conservation, environmental protection and expanding local community economic development by encouraging sustainable tourism practices across the travel industry. And it’s backed by Booking.com, Ctrip, Skyscanner, TripAdvisor and Visa.

The initiative hints at a range of future climate initiatives, now that the issue is firmly on the global agenda after a wave of public demonstrations such as the Climate Strikes started by schoolgirl Greta Thunberg.

The climate is now firmly on the global agenda, but is there really such as thing as “climate tech”?

After all we already have biotech, HealthTech, FinTech. InsurTech, AdTech and AgTech, so why not ClimateTech and what are its investment prospects? What would distinguish it from, say, CleanTech?

Amazon orders 100K electric delivery trucks from Rivian as part of going carbon neutral by 2040

Amazon will be stepping up its efforts to reduce its climate impact, CEO Jeff Bezos announced on Thursday. The company will be ordering 100,000 electric delivery trucks from Michigan’s Rivian as part of this commitment, Bezos said. The commerce giant will seek to meet its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040 – 10 years earlier than is outlined by the United Nations Paris Agreement.

Bezos said at a National Press Club event in Washington where he made the announcement that the updated timeline is due to the increase in climate change, which has been more aggressive than even some of the more serious predictions had anticipated five years ago whine the Paris agreement was reached.

Amazon’s overarching efforts to make the company carbon neutral are bundled under a plan the company is calling the “Climate Pledge,” which will be open to other companies as well. In addition to efforts like the Rivian order for emission-free delivery vehicles, Amazon will also be seeking  to reduce its footprint through other means, including solar energy and carbon offsets.

Rivian noted that this was the largest order to date of any electric delivery vehicles, and that they’d begin actually deploying for Amazon starting in 2021. Amazon led a $700 million investment round in Rivian in February, and the company announced a further $350 million from auto industry giant Cox Automotive earlier this month. Automaker Ford revealed a $500 million investment in Rivian in April, too.

Rivian also has plans to build and ship consumer vehicles, including the all-electric pickup truck and SUV it revelled late last year, which it aims to begin delivering to customers in 2020.

FarmWise and its weed-pulling agribot harvest $14.5M in funding

Automating agriculture is a complex proposition given the number and variety of tasks involved, but a number of robotics and autonomy companies are giving it their best shot. FarmWise seems to have impressed someone — it just raised $14.5 million to continue development of its autonomous weeding vehicle.

Currently in the prototype stage, these vehicles look like giant lumbering personnel carriers or the like, but are in fact precision instruments which scan the ground for invasive weeds among the crop and carefully pluck them out.

“Each day, one FarmWise robot can weed crops to feed a medium-sized city of approximately 400,000 inhabitants,” said FarmWise CEO Sebastien Boyer in a press release announcing the latest funding round. “We are now enhancing the scale and depth of our proprietary plant-detection technology to help growers with more of their processes and on more of their crops.”

Presumably the robot was developed and demonstrated with something of a specialty in one crop or another, more as a proof of concept than anything.

Well, it seems to have proved the concept. The new $14.5 million round, led by Calibrate Ventures, is likely due to the success of these early trials. This is far from an easy problem, so going from idea to nearly market-ready in under three years is pretty impressive. Farmers love tech — if it works. And tiny issues or error rates can lead to enormous problems with the vast monoculture fields that make up the majority of U.S. farms.

The company previously took in about $5.7 million in a seed round, following its debut on Alchemist Accelerator’s demo day back in 2017. Robots are expensive!

Hopefully the cash infusion will help propel FarmWise from prototype to commercialization, though it’s hard to imagine they could build more than a handful of the machines with that kind of money. Perhaps they’ll line up a couple big orders and build on that future revenue.

Meanwhile they’ll continue to develop the AI that powers the chunky, endearing vehicles.

“Looking ahead, our robots will increasingly act as specialized doctors for crops, monitoring individual health and adjusting targeted interventions according to a crop’s individual needs,” said Boyer. So not only will these lumbering platforms delicately remove weeds, but they’ll inspect for aphids and fungus and apply the necessary remedies.

With that kind of inspection they can make a data play later — what farmer wouldn’t want to be able to digitally inspect every plant in their fields?

iFixit gives Fairphone 3 a perfect 10 for repairability

Here’s something the hermetically sealed iPhone can’t do: Score a perfect 10 for repairability.

Smartphone startup and social enterprise Fairphone’s latest repairable-by-design smartphone has done just that, getting 10/10 in an iFixit Teardown vs scores of just 6/10 for recent iPhone models.

The Fairphone 3, which was released in Europe last week with an RRP of €450, gets thumbs up across the board in iFixit’s hardware Teardown. It found all the internal modules to be easily accessible and replaceable — with only basic tools required to get at them (Fairphone includes a teeny screwdriver in the box). iFixit also lauds visual cues that help with disassembly and reassembly, and notes that repair guides and spare parts are available on Fairphone’s website.

iFixit’s sole quibble is that while most of the components inside the Fairphone 3’s modules are individually replaceable “some” are soldered on. A tiny blip that doesn’t detract from the 10/10 repairability score

Safe to say, such a score is the smartphone exception. The industry continues to encourage buyers to replace an entire device, via yearly upgrade, instead of enabling them to carry out minor repairs themselves — so they can extend the lifespan of their device and thereby shrink environmental impact.

Dutch startup Fairphone was set up to respond to the abject lack of sustainability in the electronics industry. The tiny company has been pioneering modularity for repairability for several years now, flying in the face of smartphone giants that are still routinely pumping out sealed tablets of metal and glass which often don’t even let buyers get at the battery to replace it themselves.

To wit: An iFixit Teardown of the Google Pixel rates battery replacement as “difficult” with a full 20 steps and between 1-2 hours required. (Whereas the Fairphone 3 battery can be accessed in seconds, by putting a fingernail under the plastic back plate to pop it off and lifting the battery out.)

The Fairphone 3 goes much further than offering a removable backplate for getting at the battery, though. The entire device has been designed so that its components are accessible and repairable.

So it’s not surprising to see it score a perfect 10 (the startup’s first modular device, Fairphone 2, was also scored 10/10 by iFixit). But it is strong, continued external validation for the Fairphone’s designed-for-repairability claim.

It’s an odd situation in many respects. In years past replacement batteries were the norm for smartphones, before the cult of slimming touchscreen slabs arrived to glue phone innards together. Largely a consequence of hardware business models geared towards profiting from pushing for clockwork yearly upgrades cycle — and slimmer hardware is one way to get buyers coveting your next device.

But it’s getting harder and harder to flog the same old hardware horse because smartphones have got so similarly powerful and capable there’s precious little room for substantial annual enhancements.

Hence iPhone maker Apple’s increasing focus on services. A shift that’s sadly not been accompanied by a rethink of Cupertino’s baked in hostility towards hardware repairability. (It still prefers, for example, to encourage iPhone owners to trade in their device for a full upgrade.)

At Apple’s 2019 new product announcement event yesterday — where the company took the wraps off another clutch of user-sealed smartphones (aka: iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro) — there was even a new financing offer to encourage iPhone users to trade in their old models and grab the new ones. ‘Look, we’re making it more affordable to upgrade!’ was the message.

Meanwhile, the only attention paid to sustainability — during some 1.5 hours of keynotes — was a slide which passed briefly behind marketing chief Phil Schiller towards the end of his turn on stage puffing up the iPhone updates, encouraging him to pause for thought.

Apple 2019 event

“iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 are made to be designed free from these harmful materials and of course to reduce their impact on the environment,” he said in front of a list of some toxic materials that are definitely not in the iPhones.

Stuck at the bottom of this list were a couple of detail-free claims that the iPhones are produced via a “low-carbon process” and are “highly recyclable”. (The latter presumably a reference to how Apple handles full device trade-ins. But as anyone who knows about sustainability will tell you, sustained use is far preferable to premature recycling…)

“This is so important to us. That’s why I bring it up every time. I want to keep pushing the boundaries of this,” Schiller added, before pressing the clicker to move on to the next piece of marketing fodder. Blink and you’d have missed it.

If Apple truly wants to push the boundaries on sustainability — and not just pay glossy lip-service to reducing environmental impact for marketing purposes while simultaneously encouraging annual upgrades — it has a very long way to go indeed.

As for repairability, the latest and greatest iPhones clearly won’t hold a candle to the Fairphone.

Climate activists plan to use drones to shut down Heathrow Airport next month

A UK group of climate activists is planning to fly drones close to Heathrow Airport next month in a direct action they hope will shut down the country’s largest airport for days or even longer.

The planned action is in protest at the government’s decision to green-light a third runway at Heathrow.

They plan to use small, lightweight “toy” drones, flown at head high (6ft) within a 5km drone ‘no fly’ zone around the airport — but not within flight paths. The illegal drone flights will also be made in the early morning at a time when there would not be any scheduled flights in the air space to avoid any risk of posing a threat to aircraft.

The activists point out that the government recently declared a climate emergency — when it also pledged to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 — arguing there is no chance of meeting that target if the UK expands current airport capacity.

A press spokesman for the group, which is calling itself Heathrow Pause, told TechCrunch: “Over a thousand child are dying as a result of climate change and ecological collapse — already, every single day. That figure is set to significantly worsen. The government has committed to not just reducing carbon emissions but reducing them to net zero — that is clearly empirically impossible if they build another runway.”

The type of drones they plan to use for the protest are budget models which they say can be bought cheaply at UK retailer Argos — which, for example, sells the Sky Viper Stunt Drone for £30; the Revell GO! Stunt Quadcopter Drone for £40; and the Revell Spot 2.0 Quadcopter (which comes with a HD camera) for £50.

The aim for the protest is to exploit what the group dubs a loophole in Heathrow’s health and safety protocol around nearby drone flights to force it to close down runways and ground flights.

Late last year a spate of drone sightings near the UK’s second busiest airport, Gatwick, led to massive disruption for travellers just before Christmas after the airport responded by grounding flights.

At the time, the government was sharply criticized for having failed to foresee weaknesses in the regulatory framework around drone flights near sensitive sites like airports.

In the following months it responded by beefing up what was then a 1km airport exclusion zone to 5km — with that expanded ‘no fly’ zone coming into force in March. However a wider government plan to table a comprehensive drones bill has faced a number of delays.

It’s the larger 5km ‘no fly’ zone that the Heathrow Pause activists are targeting in a way they hope will safely trigger the airport’s health & safety protocol and shut down the airspace and business as usual.

Whether the strategy to use drones as a protest tool to force the closure of the UK’s largest airport will fly remains to be seen.

A spokeswoman for Heathrow airport told us it’s confident it has “robust plans” in place to ensure the group’s protest does not result in any disruption to flights. However she would not provide any details on the steps it will take to avoid having to close runways and ground flights, per its safety protocol.

When we put the airport’s claim of zero disruption from intended action back to Heathrow Pause, its spokesman told us: “Our understanding is that the airport’s own health and safety protocols dictate that they have to ground airplanes if there are any drones of any size flying at any height anywhere within 5km of the airport.

“Our position would be that it’s entirely up to them what they do. That the action that we’re taking does not pose a threat to anybody and that’s very deliberately the case. Having said that I’d be surprised to hear that they’re going to disregard their own protocols even if those are — in our view — excessive. It would still come as a surprise if they weren’t going to follow them.”

“We won’t be grounding any flights in any circumstances,” he added. “It’s not within our power to do so. All of the actions that have been planned have been meticulously planned so as not to pose any threat to anybody. We don’t actually see that there need to be flights grounded either. Having said that clearly it would be great if Heathrow decided to ground flights. Every flight that’s grounded is that much less greenhouse gas pumped into the atmosphere. And it directly saves lives.

“The fewer flights there are the better. But if there are no flights cancelled we’d still consider the action to be an enormous success — purely upon the basis of people being arrested.”

The current plan for the protest is to start illegally flying drones near Heathrow on September 13 — and continue for what the spokesman said could be as long as “weeks”, depending on how many volunteer pilots it can sign up. He says they “anticipate” having between 50 to 200 people willing to risk arrest by breaching drone flight law.

The intention is to keep flying drones for as long as people are willing to join the protest. “We are hoping to go for over a week,” he told us.

Given the plan has been directly communicated to police the spokesman conceded there is a possibility that the activists could face arrest before they are able to carry out the protest — which he suggested might be what Heathrow is banking on.

Anyone who flies a drone in an airport’s ‘no fly’ zone is certainly risking arrest and prosecution under UK law. Penalties for the offence range from fines to life imprisonment if a drone is intentionally used to cause violence. But the group is clearly taking pains to avoid accusations the protest poses a safety risk or threatens violence — including by publishing extensive details of their plan online, as well as communicating it to police and airport authorities.

A detailed protocol on their website sets out the various safety measures and conditions the activists are attaching to the drone action — “to ensure no living being is harmed”. Such as only using drones lighter than 7kg, and giving the airport an hour’s advance notice ahead of each drone flight.

They also say they have a protocol to shut down the protest in the event of an emergency — and will have a dedicated line of communication open to Heathrow for this purposes.

Some of the activists are scheduled to meet with police and airport authorities  tomorrow, face to face, at a London police station to discuss the planned action.

The group says it will only call off the action if the Heathrow third runway expansion is cancelled.

In an emailed statement in response to the protest, Heathrow Airport told us:

We agree with the need to act on climate change. This is a global issue that requires constructive engagement and action. Committing criminal offences and disrupting passengers is counterproductive.

Flying of any form of drone near Heathrow is illegal and any persons found doing so will be subject to the full force of the law. We are working closely with the Met Police and will use our own drone detection capability to mitigate the operational impact of any illegal use of drones near the airport.

Asked why the environmental activists have selected drones as their tool of choice for this protest, rather than deploying more traditional peaceful direct action strategies, such as trespassing on airport grounds or chaining themselves to fixed infrastructure, the Heathrow Pause spokesman told us: “Those kind of actions have been done in the past and they tend to result in very short duration of time during which very few flights are cancelled. What we are seeking to do is unprecedented in terms of the duration and the extent of the disruption that we would hope to cause.

“The reason for drones is in order to exploit this loophole in the health and safety protocols that have been presented to us — that it’s possible for a person with a toy drone that you can purchase for a couple of quid, miles away from any planes, to cause an entire airport to stop having flights. It is quite an amazing situation — and once it became apparent that that was really a possibility it almost seemed criminal not to do it.”

He added that drone technology, and the current law in the UK around how drones can be legally used, present an opportunity for activists to level up their environmental protest — “to cause so much disruption with so few people and so little effort” — that it’s simply “a no brainer”.

During last year’s Gatwick drone debacle the spokesman said he received many enquiries from journalists asking if the group was responsible for that. They weren’t — but the mass chaos caused by the spectre of a few drones being flown near Gatwick provided inspiration for using drone technology for an environmental protest.

The group’s website is hosting video interviews with some of the volunteer drone pilots who are willing to risk arrest to protest against the expansion of Heathrow Airport on environmental grounds.

In a statement there, one of them, a 64-year-old writer called Valerie Milner-Brown, said: “We are in the middle of a climate and ecological emergency. I am a law-abiding citizen — a mother and a grandmother too. I don’t want to break the law, I don’t want to go to prison, but right now we, as a species, are walking off the edge of a cliff. Life on Earth is dying. Fires are ravaging the Amazon. Our planet’s lungs are quite literally on fire. Hundreds of species are going extinct every day. We are experiencing hottest day after hottest day, and the Arctic is melting faster than scientists’ worst predictions.

“All of this means that we have to cut emissions right now, or face widespread catastrophe on an increasingly uninhabitable planet. Heathrow Airport emits 18 million tons of CO2 a year. That’s more than most countries. A third runway will produce a further 7.3 million tons of CO2. For all Life — now and in the future — we have to take action. I’m terrified but if this is what it will take to make politicians, business leaders and the media wake up, then I’m prepared to take this action and to face the consequences.”

The 2020 Chevy Bolt EV now has a 259-mile range thanks to some cell chemistry tinkering

The 2020 Chevy Bolt EV now has 259 miles of range, a 9% increase from previous year models of the electric hatchback, according to the EPA.

To get there, the company focused on cell chemistry, not the battery pack. The GM brand did not add more battery cells or change the battery pack or the way it is integrated into the vehicle structure, a spokesperson confirmed.

Instead, Chevrolet’s battery engineering team made what the company described as “impactful changes to the cell chemistry.” The changes to the cell chemistry allowed the team to improve the energy of the cell electrodes, and ultimately enabled them to squeeze more range out of the battery.

The increase pushes the 2020 Chevy Bolt ahead of the Kia Niro and the standard range plus variant of the Tesla Model 3, with 239 and 240 miles of range, respectively. Other versions of the Model 3, the long-range and performance, have a much longer 310-mile range. It’s also just one mile better than the 258-mile range Hyundai Kona EV. Nissan Leaf Plus, the laggard in the group, can travel 226 miles on a single charge.

That might not seem like much. But in this small, yet growing pool of electric vehicle models, jumping from 238 to 259 miles could help Chevrolet sell more Bolt EVs next year. It could also cannibalize sales this year.

The electric vehicle has never been a top seller for the GM brand, particularly compared to its top-selling SUVs and trucks. It has beat out some of its other Chevy models and sales are high enough for the company to stick with the compact hatchback for now.

GM delivered 23,297 Chevy Bolt EVs in 2017, the first model year of the electric vehicle. But the following year, deliveries fell 22%, to 18,019. Sales have rebounded in the first half of the year.

The 2020 model year, which will be offered in two new exterior colors, is expected to arrive in dealerships later this year. The base price of the electric vehicle is $37,495, which includes destination and freight charges. Tax, title, license and dealer fees are excluded.

This Thiel Fellow thinks he can help scooters, drones and delivery robots charge themselves with sunlight

From the time he was a high school student, Rohit Kalyanpur thought it was peculiar that although it’s possible to create energy from a solar panel, the panels have long been used almost exclusively on rooftops and as part of industrial-scale solar grids. “I hadn’t seen [anything solar-powered] in the things people use every day other than calculators and lawn lights,” he tells us from him home in Chicago — though he’s moving to the Bay Area next month.

It wasn’t just a passing thought for Kalyanpur. Through research positions in high school, he continued to learn about energy and work on a solar charging prototype — initially to charge his iPhone — while continuing to wonder what other materials might be powered spontaneously just by shining light on it.

What he quickly discovered, he says, is there were no developer tools to build a self-charging project. Unlike with hardware projects, where developers can turn to the open-source electronic prototyping platform Arduino, and to Raspberry Pi, a tiny computer the size of a credit card and was created in 2012 to help students understand how computers work, there was “nothing you could use to optimize a solar product,” he says.

Fast-forward, and Kalyanpur says there is now — and he helped build it.

It’s been several years in the making. After attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for two years and befriending a fellow student, Paul Couston, who helped manage and invest the university’s $10 million green fund, the pair dropped out of school to start their now four-person company, Optivolt Labs. Entry into the accelerator program Techstars Chicago was the impetus they needed, and they’ve been gaining momentum since. In fact, Kalyanpur, now 21, was recently given a Thiel Fellowship, a two-year-long program that includes a $100,000 grant to young people who want to build new things, along with a lot of mentorships and key introductions.

Now, the company has closed on a separate $1.75 million round of seed funding from a long list of notable individual investors, including Eventbrite co-founders Kevin & Julia Hartz; TJ Parker, who is the founder and CEO of PillPack (now an Amazon subsidiary); Pinterest COO Francoise Brougher: and Jeff Lutz, a former Google SVP.

What they’re buying into exactly is the promise of a scalable technology stack for solar integration. Though still nascent, Optivolt has already figured out a way to provide efficient power transfer systems, solar developer and simulation tools and cloud-based API’s to enable fleets of machines to self charge in ambient light, says Kalyanpur. Think e-scooters, EVs, drones, sensors and other connected devices.

Asked how it all works on a more granular level, Kalyanpur declines to dive into specifics, but he says the company will begin testing its technology soon with a number of “enterprise fleets” that have already signed on to work with Optivolt in pilot programs.

If it works as planned, it sounds like a pretty big opportunity. Though some companies have begun making smaller solar-powered vehicles, there are presumably many outfits that would prefer to find a way to retrofit the hardware they already have in the world, which Kalyanpur says will be possible.

He says they can use their existing batteries, too — that the solar won’t just power the devices or vehicles in real time but allow them to store some of that energy, too. Optivolt’s technology “seamlessly integrates into everyday products, so you don’t have to change the product design meaningfully,” he insists.

We’ll be curious to see if see if it does what he thinks it can. It sounds like we aren’t the only ones, either.

Asked about Optivolt’s road map, Kalynapur suggests that one is coming together. The company’s top priority, however — beyond hiring more engineering talent with its brand new round — it to see first how it works in the field.

Frontier technologies are moving closer to the center of venture investment

As the technologies that were once considered science fiction become the purview of science, the venture capital firms that were once investing at the industry’s fringes are now finding themselves at the heart of the technology industry.

Investing in the commercialization of technologies like genetic engineering, quantum computing, digital avatars, augmented reality, new human-computer interfaces, machine learning, autonomous vehicles, robots, and space travel that were once considered “frontier” investments are now front-and-center priorities for many venture capital firms and the limited partners that back them.

Earlier this month, Lux Capital raised $1.1 billion across two funds that invest in just these kinds of companies. “[Limited partners] are now more interested in frontier tech than ever before,” said Bilal Zuberi, a partner with the firm.

He sees a few factors encouraging limited partners (the investors who provide financing for venture capital funds) to invest in the firms that are financing companies developing technologies that were once considered outside of the mainstream.