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Ocean drone startup merger spawns Sofar, the DJI of the sea – TechCrunch

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What lies beneath the murky depths? SolarCity co-founder Peter Rive wants to help you and the scientific community find out. He’s just led a $7 million Series A for Sofar Ocean Technologies, a new startup formed from a merger he orchestrated between underwater drone maker OpenROV and sea sensor developer Spoondrift. Together, they’re teaming up their 1080p Trident drone and solar-powered Spotter sensor to let you collect data above and below the surface. They can help you shoot awesome video footage, track waves and weather, spot fishing and diving spots, inspect boats or infrastructure for damage, monitor acquaculture sites or catch smugglers.

Sofar’s Trident drone (left) and Spotter sensor (right)

“Aerial drones give us a different perspective of something we know pretty well. Ocean drones give us a view at something we don’t really know at all,” former Spoondrift and now Sofar CEO Tim Janssen tells me. “The Trident drone was created for field usage by scientists and is now usable by anyone. This is pushing the barrier towards the unknown.”

But while Rive has a soft spot for the ecological potential of DIY ocean exploration, the sea is crowded with competing drones. There are more expensive professional research-focused devices like the Saildrone, DeepTrekker and SeaOtter-2, as well as plenty of consumer-level devices like the $800 Robosea Biki, $1,000 Fathom ONE and $5,000 iBubble. The $1,700 Sofar Trident, which requires a cord to a surface buoy to power its three hours of dive time and two meters per second speed, sits in the middle of the pack, but Sofar co-founder David Lang things Trident can win with simplicity, robustness and durability. The question is whether Sofar can become the DJI of the water, leading the space, or if it will become just another commoditized hardware maker drowning in knock-offs.

From left: Peter Rive (chairman of Sofar), David Lang (co-founder of OpenROV) and Tim Janssen (co-founder and CEO of Sofar)

Spoondrift launched in 2016 and raised $350,000 to build affordable ocean sensors that can produce climate-tracking data. “These buoys (Spotters) are surprisingly easy to deploy, very light and easy to handle, and can be lowered in the water by hand using a line. As a result, you can deploy them in almost any kind of conditions,” says Dr. Aitana Forcén-Vázquez of MetOcean Solutions.

OpenROV (it stands for Remotely Operated Vehicle) started seven years ago and raised $1.3 million in funding from True Ventures and National Geographic, which was also one of its biggest Trident buyers. “Everyone who has a boat should have an underwater drone for hull inspection. Any dock should have its own weather station with wind and weather sensors,” Sofar’s new chairman Rive declares.

Spotter could unlock data about the ocean at scale

Sofar will need to scale to accomplish Rive’s mission to get enough sensors in the sea to give us more data on the progress of climate change and other ecological issues. “We know very little about our oceans since we have so little data, because putting systems in the ocean is extremely expensive. It can cost millions for sensors and for boats,” he tells me. We gave everyone GPS sensors and cameras and got better maps. The ability to put low-cost sensors on citizens’ rooftops unlocked tons of weather forecasting data. That’s more feasible with Spotter, which costs $4,900 compared to $100,000 for some sea sensors.

Sofar hardware owners do not have to share data back to the startup, but Rive says many customers are eager to. They’ve requested better data portability so they can share with fellow researchers. The startup believes it can find ways to monetize that data in the future, which is partly what attracted the funding from Rive and fellow investors True Ventures and David Sacks’ Craft Ventures. The funding will build up that data business and also help Sofar develop safeguards to make sure its Trident drones don’t go where they shouldn’t. That’s obviously important, given London’s Gatwick airport shutdown due to a trespassing drone.

Spotter can relay weather conditions and other climate data to your phone

“The ultimate mission of the company is to connect humanity to the ocean as we’re mostly conservationists at heart,” Rive concludes. “As more commercialization and business opportunities arise, we’ll have to have conversations about whether those are directly benefiting the ocean. It will be important to have our moral compass facing in the right direction to protect the earth.”

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Australia also wants Google to unbundle search from Android

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Enlarge / Let’s see, you landed on my “Google Ads” space, and with three houses… that will be $1,400.

Ron Amadeo / Hasbro

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is the latest government regulatory body to take issue with how Google does business. As Reuters reports, the ACCC wants Google to show a “choice screen” to Android users, allowing them to pick a default search engine other than Google Search. It also wants to limit Google’s ability to pay Apple and other vendors to be the default search engine on other platforms.

ACCC Chair Rod Sims explained the commission’s reasoning in a statement:

We are concerned that Google’s dominance and its ability to use its financial resources to fund arrangements to be the default search engine on many devices and other means through which consumers access search, such as browsers, is harming competition and consumers. Google pays billions of dollars each year for these placements, which illustrates how being the default search engine is extremely valuable to Google’s business model.

Market research firm Kantar says Android has a 60 percent share of the smartphone market, while on iOS and macOS, Google pays Apple an estimated $15 billion per year to be the default search on Safari. Google also pays Mozilla $400 million per year to remain the default on Firefox. Google has a 94 percent share of the Australian search engine market.

Google’s closest search competitor is Microsoft’s Bing, which has something like 2.5 percent market share worldwide. That’s despite being the default search engine on Windows, the world’s second most popular operating system. Google recently told an EU court that “Google” is the #1 search query on Bing, claiming that stat as evidence that users are choosing Google rather than being forced into using it.

Google has already gone through a similar Android unbundling change in the EU, which saw the company add ballot screens for the default search engine and default browser. The EU also shut down some provisions of Google’s standard “Mobile Application Distribution Agreement” (MADA) that OEMs needed to sign in order to license the Google apps. One change means that Google can’t force an “all-or-nothing” bundling of Google’s apps, so if an OEM wants a single app (like, say, the Play Store), it does not have to include every default Google app on its devices.

Android's EU search ballot.
Enlarge / Android’s EU search ballot.

Google

The EU also said that Google can’t restrict OEMs from forking Android. Previously, using the Android codebase in ways Google didn’t approve of would get an OEM kicked out of the Google Play ecosystem. South Korea also took issue with Google’s Android fork restrictions and fined the company $177 million, one of South Korea’s biggest fines ever.

Android’s business model doesn’t charge OEMs directly; instead, it generates revenue for Google through end-user Play Store purchases, Google Search queries, and Google ad impressions. These three areas are such moneymakers that not only can they completely fund Android development, but Google also offers a revenue-share program for Android OEMs, offering incentives like a kickback for each user’s search revenue.

Google’s response to all these changes was to start charging OEMs for Android if they went along with it. In the EU, OEMs can stick with Google’s preferred terms and the old revenue deals, or they can change things up by paying as much as $40 per device and potentially missing out on revenue-sharing deals.

The ACCC’s move isn’t a requirement yet—for now, it’s a potential measure that the regulator will put out for industry consultation in 2022.

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Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W: 5x faster than the original for $5 more

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Enlarge / The Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W.

The diminutive Raspberry Pi Zero is getting its first upgrade in nearly five years. Today, Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton announced the Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W, a new $15 product that puts the processor from the Raspberry Pi 3 into a board the exact same size as the original Zero.

The new board swaps the old Zero’s 1 GHz single-core ARM11 processor for a quad-core Cortex A53-based Broadcom BCM2710A1 processor, also clocked at 1 GHz—the same processor used in the original Raspberry Pi 3 released back in 2016, albeit clocked slightly lower. This is a substantial increase in power and capability for the Pi Zero, going from one core to four and from 32 bits to 64.

Upton said that the performance increase over the original Zero “varies across workloads” but that for multithreaded tasks like those simulated by sysbench, “it is almost exactly five times faster.” Heat dissipation is provided by “thick internal copper layers” in the board, which should help prevent thermal throttling without the use of additional fans or heatsinks.

The Pi Zero 2 W should fit most cases and other accessories designed for the original model.
Enlarge / The Pi Zero 2 W should fit most cases and other accessories designed for the original model.

But the Pi Zero 2 W is still a low-powered, miniature version of the Pi, which means there’s just not a lot of physical space for other upgrades. The Zero 2 W still uses 512MB of RAM, 2.4 GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi with Bluetooth 4.2, and a single HDMI port along with two micro-USB ports (one for power, one for data) and a microSD card slot. Because it still uses the same Zero form factor, it should fit all existing cases and accessories made for the original Pi Zero.

Upton said that the company hopes to ship about 200,000 Pi Zero 2 W boards in the remainder of 2021 and an additional 250,000 in the first half of 2022. These numbers are being limited somewhat by ongoing chip shortages, which prompted a rare price increase for the flagship Raspberry Pi 4 model earlier this month.

The original Pi Zero W and the Wi-Fi-less Pi Zero will continue to be manufactured and sold for their original prices of $10 and $5, respectively.

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Review: Bigger screen and better lighting make for a nearly perfect Kindle Paperwhite

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Enlarge / The 11th-generation Kindle Paperwhite Signature Edition.

Andrew Cunningham

It’s the most reliable upgrade in tech: take a thing that was already good, and make the screen bigger.

From laptops to TVs to phones to game consoles to tablets to watches, the time-honored tradition of making the screen bigger has resulted in some excellent upgrades, at least as long as making the screen bigger doesn’t screw up anything else.

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (11th gen, 2021)

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

And that’s Amazon’s playbook with the $140 11th-generation Kindle Paperwhite. Next to the 10th-generation model, the designs look nearly identical, but the new one has a larger screen enabled in part by slimmer borders around the top and sides.

But just because the bigger screen is the most noticeable thing about the new Paperwhite doesn’t mean it’s the only thing. It now has a USB-C port for charging, replacing the aging micro-USB port. Performance is improved in small but noticeable ways. Its frontlight adds more LEDs, so the illumination looks smoother and more uniform, and it also picks up the auto-brightness sensor and warm light features from the $250 Kindle Oasis.

All of that comes together in a $140 e-reader that is the best Kindle—and, by extension, the best e-reader—that you can currently buy.

Bigger screen with a better frontlight

The new Paperwhite (left) has a 6.8-inch screen, which looks and feels much larger than the old model's 6-inch display (right).

The new Paperwhite (left) has a 6.8-inch screen, which looks and feels much larger than the old model’s 6-inch display (right).

Andrew Cunningham

The headline feature of the new Paperwhite is its 6.8-inch screen, a big step up from the old Paperwhite’s (and the standard Kindle’s) 6-inch display. It doesn’t change the Kindle’s user interface much, but it does mean a lot more words per page when you’re using the same font sizes, margins, and spacing.

The space for the larger screen mostly comes out of the Kindle’s top and side bezels, which are much slimmer than before (though the bottom bezel is a little thicker than before, likely to ensure that you still have plenty of room for your thumbs while you’re holding the device). Even with the bezel tweaks, the new Kindle is taller and wider than the old one, but not so much that it feels harder to hold for extended periods. The design of the 11th-generation Paperwhite and the 10th-gen Paperwhite are otherwise identical, with bezels that are flush with the display and the same soft-touch plastic back.

The new Paperwhite also gets an upgraded frontlight that makes it a lot more like the more-expensive Kindle Oasis. The frontlight now uses 17 LEDs, up from five in the last-gen Paperwhite and four in the standard Kindle. And it now has a warmlight option that can shift the display’s color temperature from the standard cool blue to a warm orangey-yellow.

Two separate sliders control backlight brightness and the light’s color temperature. Even if you don’t care for the yellow display effect that most phones/tablets/computers offer now, turning the display warmth up a few ticks takes the harsh edge off of the bluish Kindle frontlight and makes the display a lot more pleasant to look at. A built-in auto-brightness sensor also helps with this.

The Kindle Oasis has still-more LEDs in its 7-inch screen—25, instead of 17—but the Paperwhite’s screen is so bright and evenly lit that I doubt I could tell the difference even with the two devices next to each other.

Better performance (with one serious bug)

Amazon claims the new Paperwhite has “20% faster page turns,” and while I didn’t measure anything with a stopwatch, the 11th-gen Paperwhite did feel more consistently responsive than 10th- and 7th-gen models I normally use. That’s true not just for page turns, but also for navigating menus, highlighting passages, and typing out quick notes. The new Paperwhite is still occasionally prone to the kinds of random, inexplicable minor hangups and hitches that all Kindles I’ve used have sometimes suffered from, but those pauses take less time to resolve themselves than they do on the older models.

That said, I can consistently get the new Kindle to totally lock up by rapidly adjusting the backlight and warmth sliders and then opening a book—almost as though giving the screen too many inputs in too short a time makes it stop responding entirely. The frontlight will still turn on and off, but the display won’t refresh or respond to input until the device has been hard rebooted.

I suspect that this is a bug that can be resolved with a software update, and it’s not something you’ll run into if you’re not tweaking the settings a bunch in a short period of time. But it’s something to be aware of—I’ve contacted Amazon to see whether this is a known issue and if a fix is coming.

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