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OffGridBox raises $1.6M to charge and hydrate rural Africa with its all-in-one installations – TechCrunch

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The simplest needs are often the most vital: power and clean water will get you a long way. But in rural areas of developing countries they can both be hard to come by. OffGridBox is attempting to provide both, sustainably and profitably, while meeting humanitarian and ecological goals at the same time. The company just raised $1.6 million to pursue its lofty agenda.

The idea is fairly simple, though naturally rather difficult to engineer: Use solar power to provide to a small community both electricity (in the form of charged batteries) and potable water. It’s not easy, and it’s not autonomous — but that’s by design.

I met two of the OffGridBox crew, founder and CEO Emiliano Cecchini and U.S. director Troy Billett, much earlier this year at CES in Las Vegas, where they were being honored by Not Impossible, alongside the brilliant BecDot braille learning toy. The team had a lot of irons in the fire, but now are ready to announce their seed round and progress in deploying what could be a life-saving innovation.

They’ve installed 38 boxes so far, some at their own expense and others with the help of backers. Each is about the size of a small shed — a section of a shipping container, with a scaffold on top to attach the solar cells. Inside are the necessary components for storing electricity and distributing it to dozens of rechargeable batteries and lights at a time, plus a water reservoir and purifier.

Water from a nearby unsafe natural (or municipal, really) source is trucked or piped in and replenishes the reservoir. The solar cells run the purifier, providing clean water for cheap — around a third of what a family would normally pay, by the team’s estimate — and potentially with a much shorter trek. Simultaneously, charged batteries and lights are rented out at similarly low rates to people otherwise without electricity. Each box can generate as much as 12 kWh per day, which is split between the two tasks.

The alternatives for these communities would generally be small dedicated solar installations, the upfront cost of which can be unrealistic for them. The average household spend for electricity, Billett told me, is around 43 cents per day; OffGridBox will be offering it for less than half that, about 18 cents.

It doesn’t run itself: The box is administrated by a local merchant, who handles payments and communication with OffGridBox itself. Young women are targeted for this role, as they are more likely to be long-term residents of the area and members of the community. The box acts as a small business for them, essentially drawing money out of the air.

OffGridBox works with local nonprofits to find likely candidates; the women pictured above were recommended by Women for Women. They in turn will support others who, for example, deliver or resell the water or run side businesses that rely on the electricity provided. There’s even an associated local bottled water brand now — “Amaziyateke,” named after a big leaf that collects rainwater, but in Rwanda is also slang for a beautiful woman.

Some boxes are being set up to offer Wi-Fi as well via a cellular or satellite connection, which has its own obvious benefits. And recently people have been asking for the ability to play music at home, so the company started including portable speakers. This was unexpected, but an easy demand to meet, said Billett — “It is critical to listen!”

The company does do some work to keep the tech running efficiently and safely, remotely monitoring for problems and scheduling maintenance calls. So these things aren’t just set down and forgotten. That said, they can and have run for hundreds of thousands of hours — years — without major work being done.

Each box costs about $15,000 to build, plus roughly another $10,000 to deliver and install. The business model has an investor or investors cover this initial cost, then receive a share of the revenue for the life of the box. At capacity usage this might take around two years, after which the revenue split shifts (from a negotiable initial split to 50/50); it’s a small, safe source of income for years to come. At around $10,000 of revenue per year per box with full utilization, the IRR is estimated at 15 percent.

What OffGridBox believes is that this model is better than any other for quick deployment of these boxes. Grants are an option, of course, and they can also be brought in for disaster relief purposes. Originally the idea was to sell these to rich folks who wanted to live off the grid or have a more self-sufficient mountain cabin, but this is definitely better — for a lot of reasons. (You could probably still get one for yourself if you really wanted.)

OffGridBox has been through the Techstars accelerator as part of a 2017 group, and worked through 2018, as I mentioned earlier, to secure funding from a variety of sources. This seed round totaling $1.6 million was led by the Doen and Good Energies Foundations; the Banque Populaire du Rwanda is also a partner.

Along with a series A planned for 2019, this money will support the deployment of a total of 42 box installations in Rwandan communities.

“This will help us become a major player in the energy and water markets in Rwanda while empowering women entrepreneurs, fighting biocontamination for improved health, and introducing lighting in rural homes,” said Cecchini in the press release announcing the funding.

Alternative or complementary sources of power, such as wind, are being looked into, and desalination of water (as opposed to just sterilization) is being actively researched. This would increase the range and reliability of the boxes, naturally, and make island communities much more realistic.

Those 42 boxes are just the beginning: The company hopes to deploy as many as 1,000 throughout Rwanda, and even then that would only reach a fifth of the country’s off-grid market. By partnering with local energy concerns and banks, OffGridBox hopes to deploy as many as 100 boxes a year, potentially bringing water and power to as many as 100,000 more people.

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The Google Assistant is now a Google messaging service

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The Google Assistant’s “Broadcast” feature has long existed as a way to blast a message to every Google smart speaker in the house. Instead of hunting down every individual family member at dinner time, put those smart speakers to work by saying, “Hey Google, broadcast, ‘It’s dinner time!'”

In a new blog post, Google called Broadcast “one of our most popular Assistant features” and announced that the feature is expanding to show messages on phones, too, even when they’re outside the home Wi-Fi network. That means Broadcast is basically turning into a new Google messaging service.

Broadcast will now be able to send and receive messages on the Google Home and Nest smart speakers, the Google Home Hub and Nest Hub smart displays, any Android phone, and iPhones running the Google Assistant app. Phones will get a notification when new messages arrive, and group chat members include both individual people (presumably with personal devices like a phone) and more public home devices. Just like any other messaging service, opening the notification will show a scrolling list of broadcast messages. The one big limitation is that the messaging only happens within a Google Family Group. If you want to include an outsider, you’ll have to awkwardly switch group messaging services.

Broadcast messaging uses audio by default, so speakers and smart displays will play the voice recording of your message. Phones and smart displays will show a transcription of your message and a play button, so you can listen or read if you want, and it looks like phones have the option of typing a response, too. Presumably, this would play back on speakers using text-to-speech.

One of many bespoke Google messaging services

Google has never been able to throw its full weight behind a single messaging service, and the constant launching and shutting down of competing messaging services has left the company without a competitive messaging platform to back. Several Google apps like the Google Assistant have aimed to include some smaller messaging functionality over the years, but without a clear Google service to plug into, they end up spinning up their own bespoke messaging services.

Besides this Google Assistant messaging service, YouTube Messaging existed from 2017-2019, Google Maps Messages (to message businesses) launched in 2018, Google Photos Messaging launched in 2019, Stadia Messaging was added in 2020, and Google Pay Messaging came out of beta with the app revamp in March 2021. And who could forget Google Docs Chat, which has existed seemingly forever, though awkwardly only on desktop clients. We can also give half-credit to Google News, which lets you send a message with a shared news article and will pop up a notification through the Google News app, although the feature doesn’t support replies. It would be nice if any of these services talked to each other through a single Google Messaging service, but instead, you’ll be managing individual contact lists and message histories.

This is one of a few new Google Assistant features that is supposed to arrive “just in time” for Mother’s Day (this Sunday—you all remembered, right?) so it should be rolling out soon.

Listing image by Google

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Fix for critical Qualcomm chip flaw is making its way to Android devices

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Makers of high-end Android devices are responding to the discovery of a Qualcomm chip flaw that researchers say could be exploited to partially backdoor about a third of the world’s smartphones.

The vulnerability, discovered by researchers from security firm Check Point Research, resides in Qualcomm’s Mobile Station Modem, a system of chips that provides capabilities for things like voice, SMS, and high-definition recording, mostly on higher-end devices made by Google, Samsung, LG, Xiaomi, and OnePlus. Phone-makers can customize the chips so they do additional things like handle SIM unlock requests. The chips run in 31 percent of the world’s smartphones, according to figures from Counterpoint Research.

The heap overflow the researchers found can be exploited by a malicious app installed on the phone, and from there the app can plant malicious code inside the MSM, Check Point researchers said in a blog post published Thursday. The nearly undetectable code might then be able to tap into some of a phone’s most vital functions.

“This means an attacker could have used this vulnerability to inject malicious code into the modem from Android, giving them access to the device user’s call history and SMS, as well as the ability to listen to the device user’s conversations,” the researchers wrote. “A hacker can also exploit the vulnerability to unlock the device’s SIM, thereby overcoming the limitations imposed by service providers on it.”

Fixes take time

Check Point spokesman Ekram Ahmed told me that Qualcomm has released a patch and disclosed the bug to all customers who use the chip. Because of the intricacies involved, it’s not yet clear which vulnerable Android devices are fixed and which ones aren’t.

“From our experience, the implementation of these fixes takes time, so some of the phones may still be prone to the threat,” he wrote in an email. “Accordingly, we decided not to share all the technical details, as it would give hackers a roadmap on how to orchestrate an exploitation.”

Qualcomm representatives weren’t available on Wednesday evening to answer questions.

The vulnerability is tracked as CVE-2020-11292. Check Point discovered it by using a process known as fuzzing, which exposed the chip system to unusual inputs in an attempt to find bugs in the firmware. Thursday’s research provides a deep dive into the inner workings of the chip system and the general outline they used to exploit the vulnerability.

The research is a reminder that phones and other modern-day computing devices are actually a collection of dozens if not hundreds of interconnected computing devices. While successfully infecting individual chips typically requires nation-state-level hacking resources, the feat would allow an attacker to run malware that couldn’t be detected without time and money.

“We believe this research to be a potential leap in the very popular area of mobile chip research,” Check Point researchers wrote. “Our hope is that our findings will pave the way for a much easier inspection of the modem code by security researchers, a task that is notoriously hard to do today.”

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Dell patches a 12-year-old privilege escalation vulnerability

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Enlarge / At least three companies have reported the dbutil_2_3.sys security problems to Dell over the past two years.

Yesterday, infosec research firm SentinelLabs revealed twelve year old flaws in Dell’s firmware updater, DBUtil 2.3. The vulnerable firmware updater has been installed by default on hundreds of millions of Dell systems since 2009.

The five high severity flaws SentinelLabs discovered and reported to Dell lurk in the dbutil_2_3.sys module, and have been rounded up under a single CVE tracking number, CVE-2021-21551. There are two memory corruption issues and two lack of input validation issues, all of which can lead to local privilege escalation, and a code logic issue which could lead to a denial of service.

A hypothetical attacker abusing these vulnerabilities can escalate the privileges of another process, or bypass security controls to write directly to system storage. This offers multiple routes to the ultimate goal of local kernel-level access—a step even higher than Administrator or “root” access—to the entire system.

This is not a remote code execution vulnerability—an attacker sitting across the world, or even across the coffee shop, cannot use it directly to compromise your system. The major risk is that an attacker who gets an unprivileged shell via some other vulnerability can use a local privilege escalation exploit like this one to bypass security controls.

Since SentinelLabs notified Dell in December 2020, the company has provided documentation of the flaws, and mitigation instructions which for now boil down to “remove the utility.” A replacement driver is also available, and should be automatically installed at the next firmware update check on affected Dell systems.

SentinelLabs’ Kasif Dekel was at least the fourth researcher to discover and report this issue, following CrowdStrike’s Satoshi Tanda and Yarden Shafir, and IOActive’s Enrique Nissim. It’s not clear why it took Dell two years and three separate infosec companies’ reports to patch the issue—but to paraphrase CrowdStrike’s Alex Ionescu above, what matters most is that Dell’s users will finally be protected.

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