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China busts smugglers whose drones snuck $79.8 million worth of iPhones to mainland

March 30, 2018 - 7:13am
(Reuters) — Customs officers in southern China’s technology hub Shenzhen busted a group of criminals using drones to smuggle 500 million yuan ($79.8 million) worth of smartphones from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, the official Legal Daily reported on Friday. Authorities arrested 26 suspects who used drones to fly two 200-meter (660-feet) cable…Read More

Edgybees lands $5.5 million to save lives with AR drones

February 28, 2018 - 4:30am

Augmented reality and drones. It sounds like a match made in entertainment heaven, but one company is using the combination of drone technology and AR to help save lives.

Today, Edgybees — whose technology enables augmented reality (AR) on high-speed platforms such as drones and cars — has announced a seed round of $5.5 million to expand its operations.

Edgybees technology was initially applied to AR drone racing and was released in partnership with DJI in early 2017. Later that year, Edgybees released First Response, a drone-flying app that emergency responders use to orient themselves in confusing environments and to better track rapidly evolving circumstances.

I saw Edgybees in action during a recent visit to Jerusalem for the OurCrowd Summit. During the demonstration — a simulation of an emergency response situation — a first responder arrived by motorcycle and deployed a DJI drone. The software overlays live drone camera footage with Google Maps data to pinpoint exactly where the emergency is taking place.

Those coordinates can then be sent to responders. Edgybees can also deploy volunteers on foot, motorcycle, bicycle, or via other modes of transport to reach places inaccessible to cars, fire engines, and ambulances.

The drone flying app was first used in the Florida Keys in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, when officials used map overlays to identify distress calls in flooded areas. First Response was most recently used by local authorities to keep fire fighters out of harm’s way during the Northern California fires last October.

A volunteer-based service structure makes Edgybees’ business model exciting and relatively rare.

“Public safety is a market with hundreds of buyers backed with billions of dollars of budgets — in fact, one of the investors is Motorola, which is an $18 billion company focused on public safety,” Edgybees cofounder and CEO Adam Kaplan told me. “There are many fire, police, and other agencies going to DJI to purchase tens of thousands of drones because they are seeing a major change in the efficacy of their missions with aerial footage. We are taking what is possible and multiplying its value with AR overlays, and we’re already seeing our first users value this at a sale price that makes this a very large market.”

The company does not see itself as a drone-based business, however.

“We are first and foremost a technology company and intend to foster an ecosystem of application developers who want to bring AR to other verticals,” Kaplan said. “This includes multiple commercial and end customers in the defense world, broadcasting, oil and gas, automotive OEMs and suppliers, as well as gaming studios.”

The round included Motorola Solutions Venture Capital and Verizon Ventures. Venture firms OurCrowd, 8VC, NFX, and Aspect Ventures also participated. Edgybees will use the funding to bring its AR technology to new verticals, including defense, smart cities, automotive, and broadcast media.

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PrecisionHawk acquires Droners and AirVid to create a massive network of licensed drone pilots

February 8, 2018 - 12:00am

PrecisionHawk has announced a duo of acquisitions as the commercial drone company looks to build the biggest network of commercially licensed drone pilots in the U.S.

Founded out of Raleigh, North Carolina in 2010, PrecisionHawk supplies drones, software, and services for companies to put unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to use across numerous industries such as insurance and construction.

The two startups that have been bought by PrecisionHawk are Rhode Island-based Droners, a platform dedicated to helping drone operators hire licensed drone pilots specializing in aerial photography; and Ontario, Canada-based AirVid, which serves as a platform for finding all manner of drone pilots dealing in photo, video, cinematography, surveying, mapping, and more.

Above: PrecisionHawk: Roof damage assessment

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) passed new rules back in 2016 allowing drones to be used commercially in the U.S. Buoyed by this green light, the commercial drone market is now estimated to become a $127 billion industry by 2020, according to PwC, and investors are lining up to take a piece of the new wave of UAV startups. An estimated $454 million was thrown at UAV startups in 2016 alone, and PrecisionHawk itself has nabbed around $104 million in funding — $75 million of which came just two weeks ago.

At the time of its big raise last month, PrecisionHawk said that “strategic acquisitions” would be one of the avenues it would pursue as part of its growth, and it hasn’t hung around. These latest transactions represent PrecisionHawk’s second and third known acquisitions, after it snapped up aerial imagery company Terraserver in 2015.

Drones need pilots (but maybe not for long), which is why PrecisionHawk wants to create a wide-reaching network of licensed drone pilots which companies can call upon to not only maneuver the drones, but capture imagery as required by the client.

The company said that it plans to merge both companies under the “Droners” brand to form an immediate network of 15,000 drone pilots, which will be used not only as a channel for connecting drone pilots with companies directly, but will also serve PrecisionHawk’s own enterprise client base. Droners founder Dave Brown will head up the new PrecisionHawk pilot network development team, while AirVid founder Patrick Egan will stay on as a consultant and assist with integrating the respective platforms.

“Droners and AirVid share our mission of helping drone operators turn their passion into a profession,” noted PrecisionHawk CEO Michael Chasen. “Combined with PrecisionHawk’s expertise in providing professional drone services to the enterprise, this merger enables us to build the best platform for drone pilots while simultaneously providing our enterprise clients with the on-demand services they require.”

PrecisionHawk raises $75 million to grow its commercial drone platform

January 24, 2018 - 2:04am

Commercial drone company PrecisionHawk has raised $75 million in a round of funding led by Third Point Ventures, with participation from a number of other investors, including Intel Capital, Comcast Ventures, Verizon Ventures, NTT Docomo Ventures, Senator Ventures, Yamaha Motor, Constellation Technology Ventures, and Syngenta Ventures, the VC arm of agricultural giant Syngenta.

Founded out of Raleigh, North Carolina in 2010, PrecisionHawk supplies drones and associated software and services that enable various types of companies to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

For example, the insurance industry can use data garnered from a UAV to assess applications, while a construction company may use it to survey a site before starting work. In addition to the drones themselves, PrecisionHawk can provide mapping tools, analytics, and training to help make sense of the data.

Above: Roof damage assessment

PrecisionHawk had raised around $30 million in prior funding, and with its latest cash bounty the company plans to “build upon its lead” in the commercial drone space by expanding its team, developing its products, and making “strategic acquisitions,” according to a statement.

Nabbing strategic investment from the likes of Syngenta is a major coup for PrecisionHawk and is a strong indicator of how drones can be put to use in agriculture and farm management.

“Syngenta has been a PrecisionHawk customer since 2015 and has experienced first-hand the impact of the technology platform — both augmenting and replacing a variety of manual processes for more efficient and scalable operations,” noted Katrin Burt, managing director of Syngenta’s VC arm. “This investment reflects our commitment to advancing technologies that could have a real impact within agriculture and our excitement about the potential for PrecisionHawk to lead the commercial drone space across multiple industries.”

Flying high

Above: Assessing property damage

The commercial drone market is edging toward becoming a $127 billion industry by 2020, according to PwC, and we’ve seen a spike in venture capital (VC) investment in drone-related companies recently. Indeed, an estimated $454 million was plowed into UAV startups in 2016 alone, which included the likes of San Francisco-based DroneDeploy and San Carlos-based Prenav. More recently, Kespry raised $33 million in December to help companies capture aerial imagery through drones, while last week Iris Automation raised $8 million to help UAVs avoid collisions.

In short, a plethora of drone-tech startups are battling over a lucrative market. But PrecisionHawk hopes to achieve greater scale by offering a fully integrated end-to-end service that includes hardware, services, and strategy.

“PrecisionHawk provides a full enterprise solution stack,” PrecisionHawk CEO Michael Chasen told VentureBeat. “From services, like strategy and custom development, to technology, like drone hardware, sensors and software, we provide end-to-end support for integrating aerial data and analytics into the enterprise. End-to-end is important because the ability to provide a full custom solution is what differentiates PrecisionHawk from any other provider of commercial drone technology.”

The company said that it has made 100 new hires in 2017 and now claims clients in 150 countries across agriculture, energy, insurance, government, and construction.

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DJI unveils pocket-sized Mavic Air drone, ships January 28 for $799

January 23, 2018 - 7:43am

DJI officially unveiled its latest consumer drone, the Mavic Air, at an event today in New York City. The Mavic Air offers enhanced specs that have already proven popular with owners of DJI’s Mavic Pro and the smaller, more affordable Spark drone.

According to DJI’s website, the Mavic Air is priced at $799 and has an estimated ship date of January 28. The Mavic Air will also be available for purchase in select retail stores starting January 28. There’s also a “Fly More Combo” available to order online at $999, which includes extra batteries, extra propellers, and a travel bag.

Photos of the drone leaked online yesterday, but today DJI executive Michael Perry revealed some previously unconfirmed specs, including the drone’s speed and range. The Mavic Air can go up to 68.4 kilometers per hour (42.5 miles) and has a 2.5 mile flight range. Users can control the Mavic Air at a range of up to 19 feet using DJI’s smart capture technology, 262 feet using the smartphone app, and 2.5 miles with the remote control. The Mavic Air has a 21-minute flight time.

Like the Mavic Pro, the pocket-sized Mavic Air comes with foldable legs. The Mavic Air also features improved photo and video capabilities, with a three-way gimbal instead of the Spark’s two-way, and a camera capable of capturing 32-megapixel panorama shots and 4K video at 24 or 30 frames per second. According to Perry, the three-way gimbal has been given a new layout to provide multiple dimensions of vibration reduction, and the Mavic Air is “the smallest drone of its size to feature a three-axis gimbal.”

Perry also touted the Mavic Air’s portability, calling it “the smallest footprint of any drone we’ve created so far.” The Mavic Air is half the size of the Mavic Pro and weighs 41 percent less.

“It empowers creativity for outdoor photographers, travelers, and adventurers who want to capture new perspectives on the go,” Perry said at the event.

The Mavic Air is available in three colors: black, white, and red.

Other features to note: the Mavic Air has 8GB of internal storage, a redesigned ventilation system to keep it from overheating, and a seven camera obstacle avoidance system.

The Mavic Air adds another drone on the lower end of DJI’s price range as the Chinese drone maker seeks to increase its already mammoth share of the consumer drone market. The company had an estimated $2.7 billion in sales in 2017 and has a global market share of 70 percent.

The release of the Mavic Air comes just weeks after GoPro announced that it would be exiting the drone business. Although GoPro’s drone business had been struggling for a while, this decision leaves DJI with one less potential competitor in the future.

 

Drone trends to watch in 2018: Big data, flying taxis, and home security

January 13, 2018 - 11:05am

GUEST:

Drones are going to see significant new capabilities in 2018. The use of multiple high-functioning cameras as well as upgraded Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) will enhance navigational acumen far beyond that of today’s drone models. This, combined with ultra-fast charging and longer-lasting batteries, means the drones of 2018 will have far greater range and performance flexibility.

Expect to see more and more sectors incorporating drones into their operations this year as a result. Here are three areas that should be especially interesting to watch:

1. Drone-enabled big data

Drones offer a vast, bird’s eye view for collecting data, which can contribute enormously to diverse areas such as weather, traffic flow, and even disaster forecasting. A fleet of drones can collect and analyze road conditions in real-time, amassing data that can help alleviate gridlock. And, unlike traffic cameras, drones have the flexibility to observe from numerous angles and can be sent swiftly to flashpoints, making them ideal for monitoring our roadways.

In 2017, drones helped determine damage following several natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires, and such data could prove vital in saving more and more lives in 2018. Several companies are already using drones for data collection and analysis in such areas. Kespry provides an aerial intelligence platform integrated with cloud storage to streamline insurance claims and help analysts better grasp the scope of a disaster. CyPhy specializes in high-endurance tethered drones with secure payload data that provide vital information and real-time footage to first responders; these drones are designed for customers in the defense, public safety, and commercial industries. And Flyability has created Elios, an inspection drone designed to explore indoor and confined spaces to guide safety improvements to anything from bridges to mines.

Data collected by drones will also help the drone industry itself. With copious amounts of data to power unmanned aerial vehicles, “smart drones” will become more adept at navigating hazards on their own and communicating amongst themselves to negotiate safe flight paths, alter routes automatically in real-time according to current conditions, and even abort missions altogether if the data shows too much risk. One day, AI powered drones may even make the drone air traffic control system NASA is currently developing redundant.

Of course, there are darker clouds – with fear of drones being used as “big brother” tools, spying down on us from above. Consumers usually vote with their wallets on the side of convenience at the expense of privacy, but regulators need to be mindful of such issues when charting the path for drones in the coming year.

2. Unmanned flying taxis

It won’t quite be the Jetsons, but in 2018, several companies will be competing to bring us the flying car/drone, also known as the AAV (Autonomous Aerial Vehicle). The concept first emerged with proof of concept prototypes from major players such as Ehang, whose eco-friendly AAVs aim to serving as autonomous personal transportation devices. The company has raised over $50 million in funding.

Another competitor is Volocopter a German company aiming to help cities resolve growing mobility issues. Featuring a two-seated drone with 18 rotors, Volocopter received $30 million in funding from Daimler and was also chosen to lead Dubai’s revolutionary aerial shuttle service, with testing already taking place.

Even Uber is joining in the fight against road congestion with its Uber Elevate – a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft “fast-forwarding to the future of on-demand, urban air transportation” – which the company says will be fully operational by 2020. Uber is working with a number of partners on drone initiatives, including aviation giant Boeing’s Aurora, Bell Helicopters, and even NASA.

Though a future of skies teeming with drone taxis may not be very appealing to today’s professional drivers (or birds for that matter), taxi drones will offer immense benefits. They will be clean, safe, will free up roads – maybe even doing away with them altogether one day – and, with an infinite number of traffic lanes, will make our daily journeys exponentially faster.

3. Home surveillance via drone

Home security cameras could soon become a thing of the past with the rise of autonomous, multi-sensor drones. These drones will self-activate upon detecting noise or suspicious movement and fly inside or around a property until the threat is found and thwarted – with the homeowner watching from a safe distance. Drones are already used for surveillance in large industrial facilities, but drone-based home surveillance systems will likely take wing in 2018.

Sunflower Labs, a Palo-Alto-based company, is developing a home awareness system that combines immobile sensors with drones, leaving no corner unchecked. The sensors communicate with a camera-equipped quadcopter that transmits alerts and live footage of ongoing activity. Again, as home monitoring capabilities become more expansive, privacy and cybersecurity issues will become more acute, and homeowners will have to make tough choices regarding privacy versus safety.

Technologies such as AI, computer vision, and energy storage will also continue to develop exponentially in 2018. So the innovation should be very interesting to watch this year.

Yariv Bash is CEO of Flytrex Aviation and Amit Regev is cofounder and VP of Product at the company.

Seagate adds storage for drones and other mobile devices

January 9, 2018 - 1:00pm

Seagate Technology announced a range of new mobile storage products — including storage for drones — based on its Seagate and LaCie brands at CES 2018, the big tech trade show in Las Vegas this week.

The products are aimed at the world’s increasingly mobile population with solutions that solve key challenges they face when creating, processing, and accessing their data on the go.

“Our world is becoming more data-centric, connected and mobile. This means creating, transferring, storing and accessing data quickly and reliably is critical to unlocking the potential of everything — from data created in the field, to data powering self-driving cars, AI personal assistants or virtual and mixed reality experiences,” said Tim Bucher, senior vice president of Seagate consumer solutions, in a statement. “At Seagate, we’re constantly pursuing innovative ways to address our customer needs so they can gain a competitive edge in whichever field they play.”

For example, videographers who want to capture footage in the field can now streamline their workflow thanks to the second product offering from Seagate’s strategic partnership with DJI, the big drone maker: data storage for drones.

The new LaCie DJI Copilot, with a design by Neil Poulton, is a complete backup storage unit that enables drone users to store and review their content in full resolution without a PC.

This allows creative professionals and consumers to play back, copy, and manage their drone footage from their mobile device without the hassle of leaving the field or booting up a computer. Users can quickly connect and reference the built-in screen to initiate direct file transfer from an SD card to LaCie DJI Copilot — without the need for a laptop or even a mobile network.

Above: Seagate’s mobile phone storage.

Image Credit: Seagate

The Copilot BOSS (Back-up On Set Solution) app by LaCie lets users play video in full resolution as well as manage and organize files with their mobile phone or tablet, and a built-in power bank recharges the mobile devices.

With 2000GB (2TB) of storage, the LaCie DJI Copilot enables users to easily store up to 65 hours of 4K
30fps video footage and 20K+ RAW photos. The LaCie DJI Copilot will be $350 in the U.S., and it will be ready in the spring.

Mobile users also face the problem of extending the storage and battery life of their smartphones so they can capture, access, and view content for longer periods of time. For consumers in China and Indonesia — two countries with some of the highest concentrations of smartphones on the planet — owners of Android mobile devices can significantly extend the battery life and capacity of their smartphone or tablet with the new Seagate Joy Drive.

The Seagate Joy Drive enables consumers to access videos and other content anywhere, without the need for a Wi-Fi connection or cellular service.

Available first in China this March through an exclusive partnership with JingDong, one of China’s largest online retailers, the Seagate Joy Drive is available in 1000GB (1TB) capacity and has a price in China of 660 CNY ($99). Seagate is also evaluating potential future markets and partners for this product.

Seagate also has new fast SSD flash drives ranging in price from $99 to $349, with capacities of 250GB to 1TB. Those are also shipping in the spring.

Seagate has a new addition to its LaCie brand with the LaCie Rugged Secure device, which is built to withstand extreme conditions. It will cost $140 for 2TB and will ship in the spring.

The DeanBeat: What to expect from CES 2018 — the stupid and the good

January 5, 2018 - 8:00am

I’m expanding my horizons from games to tech next week as I head off to Las Vegas for CES 2018, the big tech trade show that begins for the media on Sunday. I hope to find some interesting stories, like the one that Arnold Donald, the CEO of the world’s largest cruise company, told last year as Carnival Cruises launched its Ocean Medallion wearable. That was interesting because it was an example of how technology was infiltrating a non-tech business.

Technology is fading into the woodwork, as the woodwork is getting smart. The Internet of Things trend will be a huge part of the product mix. Gartner estimates that 8.4 billion IoT devices will be in use in 2017, growing to 20.4 billion by 2020. And judging by CES, these things will be zany and incredibly expensive, like last year’s U by Moen smart shower, which will get your water temperature just right for the price of $1,200. Moen was clever in using beautiful models to get us excited about this idea, but we have to take a cold shower.

I like to think of products like this as the Internet of Stupid Things for Rich People, or IoSTRP. Masayoshi Son, the CEO of SoftBank, anticipates that we’re going to have a future with 1 trillion Internet of Things devices. But we’re going to have to do better, and bring the price of these things down so that the smart things are as cheap as the dumb things they replace. Otherwise, we have few reasons to replace them. Once we’ve run our course with stupid things, we may go back and revisit the Internet of Obvious Things, like making a computer smarter.

Above: Moen’s smart shower remembers your preferred temperature and restores it with one button push.

Image Credit: Moen

But I’m not entirely skeptical. I will be out there looking for the golden ticket of tech products, and I will be accompanied by VentureBeat writers Stephanie Chan and Blair Hanley Frank. We have the privilege of joining as many as 184,000 other people as we sift through 2.6 million square feet of space and 4,000 exhibitors for the cool stuff.

It will be fun to see if the real world seeps into CES. While government officials come, CES isn’t always the forum for big political disagreements. Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, apparently agreed with that and decided to bail on his planned public speaking session at CES in light of his unpopularity in tech circles for killing net neutrality.

And while sexual harassment has been a big topic in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, it isn’t clear how much it will come up as an “elephant in the room” topic. Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel, has spoken often about diversity, and he will have a keynote speech on Monday night to open the show. But what has always struck me about Krzanich and Intel is that they have seemed to stand alone in giving a voice to this topic. Maybe the rest of the crowd just wants to party at the wild Vegas nightclubs.

I also don’t expect to hear so much about flaws like a nasty security issue that Intel acknowledged last week. That’s because keynote speeches and press events at CES are one-way affairs, with no chance to ask questions while speakers are on stage.

Above: Intel CEO Brian Krzanich shows off Project Alloy at CES 2017. This one got canned.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

The big companies will be touting smaller and thinner computers. (Most phone makers don’t show their stuff until the Mobile World Congress in Europe.) Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, says that the drone section of the show floor will have 47 exhibitors, up 15 percent from last year, across 38,550 square feet, down 1 percent. Many of those drones are going to be autonomous, as makers have discovered that most of us can only crash our drones.

The robotics section will have 35 exhibitors, up 30 percent, across 21,500 square feet, up 68 percent. I’m looking forward to the variety of those robots, from the humanoid beings with a lot of artificial intelligence to the household delivery robots like Relay. Seven Dreamers has a laundry-folding robot called the Laundroid.

I am hoping that some of the best AI will be in self-driving cars. Blair will be checking those out, but much of the real estate of CES will likely be consumed by these big showpiece cars that would probably be impossibly confused if they tried to navigate past people on the show floor.

Greg Roberts, managing director for Accenture’s North American high-tech practice, said in an interview with me that AI is more like a Wi-Fi connection, or something that we expect to deliver what we want without hassle.

Augmented reality will have 24 exhibitors, up 20 percent, across 10,900 square feet, up 30.5 percent. AR has a small base, but it doesn’t have as steep a hill to climb as VR right now. The problem is that I am starting to see a lot of really “just OK” AR, which doesn’t really fool me into thinking that blending the unreal and the real can be seamless. Smart glasses could be so cool, but it’s a little hard to say when Moore’s Law, or the prediction that the number of transistors on a chip will double every couple of years, will deliver technological progress that makes these devices more affordable and better. Moore’s Law has worked miracles over decades, but it can’t do so much from one year to the next.

Above: Intel’s 5G modem chip debuted at CES 2017.

Image Credit: Intel

Gaming and virtual reality will have 46 exhibitors, down 36 percent from 72 last year, across 37,500 square feet, up 26 percent. That doesn’t mean gaming has fallen apart. Rather, it suggests that VR companies were too exuberant and didn’t meet customer expectations.

I expect that 5G wireless voice and networking will command a lot of air space at the show, even though we won’t see real products until something like 2020. Krzanich and Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon will likely jockey to be the seers of 5G, which will get some kind of demo at the Winter Olympics in South Korea and a real field test at the Tokyo Winter Olympics in 2020. While you can’t see it as a tangible product, 5G will be like AI and Wi-Fi, laying the groundwork for so many cool services like wireless home broadband and web-based gaming.

5G could very well lead to a huge economic boom, which is what we’ll need if AI gets so good that it eliminates a lot of jobs. The problem with 5G is that it doesn’t capture the imagination the way that a suitcase that follows you can. (That one costs $1,100).

Above: Travelmate’s robot luggage will follow you around.

Image Credit: Travelmate

What I’m really looking forward to are useful products that are not tech for tech’s sake, but tech that is being used in a consumer application by companies that aren’t known for selling technology. Omron Healthcare said that it will show off a wearable blood pressure monitor that it is submitting to the Food and Drug Administration for approval for launch in 2018.

I still hope to see companies come back with good ideas from past years, only in a more refined, cheaper, and more practical format. I’d love to see Panasonic’s interactive mirror become affordable, at maybe $99. Electric cars are becoming awesome, but if you add self-driving to their features, then it’s going to be a while before they become practical. I’d love to see some of these devices make the leap from the equivalent of porn for the tech enthusiast to affordable and valuable devices for mainstream consumers.

Or like the Carnival Cruise wearables. At some point, tech will become part of the fabric, and we won’t even think of it as tech anymore. I hope you’ll read our coverage of CES 2018 in the coming days.