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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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Google will soon default to blurring explicit image search results

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Enlarge / Google’s new “Blur” setting for SafeSearch will soon be the default, blurring explicit images unless you’re logged in and over 18.

Aurich Lawson

Google has debuted a new default SafeSearch setting, somewhere between “on” and “off,” that automatically blurs explicit images in search results for most people.

In a blog post timed to Safer Internet Day, Google outlined a number of measures it plans to implement to “protect democracies worldwide,” secure high-risk individuals, improve password management, and protect credit card numbers. Tucked into a series of small-to-medium announcements is a notable change to search results, Google’s second core product after advertising.

A new setting, rolling out “in the coming months,” “will blur explicit imagery if it appears in Search results when SafeSearch filtering isn’t turned on,” writes Google’s Jen Fitzpatrick, senior vice president of Core Systems & Experiences. “This setting will be the new default for people who don’t already have the SafeSearch filter turned on, with the option to adjust settings at any time.”

Google’s explanatory image (seen above) shows someone logged in and searching for images of “Injury.” A notice shows that “Google turned on SafeSearch blurring,” which “blurs explicit images in your search results.” One of the example image results—”Dismounted Complex Blast Injury (DCBI)” from ResearchGate—is indeed quite explicit, as far as human viscera and musculature goes. Google provides one last check if you click on that blurred image: “This image may contain explicit content. SafeSearch blurring is on.”

Explicit images, such as the "blast injury" shown in Google's example, will be blurred by default in Google search images, unless a user is over 18, signs in, and turns it off.
Enlarge / Explicit images, such as the “blast injury” shown in Google’s example, will be blurred by default in Google search images, unless a user is over 18, signs in, and turns it off.

If you click “View image,” you see life’s frail nature. If you click “Manage setting,” you can choose between three settings: Filter (where explicit results don’t show up at all), Blur (where both blurring and are-you-sure clicks occur), and Off (where you see “all relevant results, even if they’re explicit”).

Signed-in users under the age of 18 automatically have SafeSearch enabled, blocking content including “pornography, violence, and gore.” With this change, Google will automatically be blurring explicit content for everybody using Google who doesn’t log in, stay logged in, and specifically ask to show it instead. It’s a way to prevent children from getting access to explicit images, but also, notably, a means of ensuring people are logged in to Google if they’re looking for something… very specific. An incognito window, it seems, just won’t do.

Google turned on SafeSearch as its default for under-18 users in August 2021, having been pressured by Congress to better protect children across its services, including search and YouTube.

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OnePlus takes on the iPad with the OnePlus Pad

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Android tablets are on their way back, and one of Android’s biggest manufacturers (we’re talking about OnePlus parent company BBK) is bringing an Android tablet to the US for the first time. Say hello to the OnePlus Pad, an 11.61-inch tablet with an optional keyboard and stylus. We don’t know how much it costs, so don’t ask. There’s also no hard release date, but preorders start in April.

What we do know are the specs. The 11.61-inch display is a 144 Hz LCD, with a resolution of 2800×2000. That’s an aspect ratio of 7:5, or a bit wider than a 4:3 display, which OnePlus claims is a “book-like” aspect ratio. The SoC is a MediaTek Dimensity 9000. That’s a rarity in the US, but it’s basically a generic ARM design for 2022 flagship phones, with one 3.05 GHz ARM Cortex X2 CPU, three A710 CPUs, and four A510 CPUs. It’s a 4 nm chip with an ARM Mali-G710 MC10. You also get 8GB of RAM (there’s an option for 12GB), 128GB of UFS 3.1 storage, and a 9510 mAh battery. This is not in the super-flagship tablet territory and should (hopefully) come with an affordable price tag.

As always, OnePlus’ trademark quick-charging is here, and it’s 67 W. On a tiny phone battery, that kind of charging will usually take a phone from 0-100 in around a half hour, but with a big tablet battery, a full charge still takes “just over 60 minutes.” In the fine print, OnePlus actually gives a warning against any repair attempts, saying, “The battery has been especially encrypted for safety purposes. Please go to an official OnePlus service center to repair your battery or get a genuine replacement battery.” I’ve never heard of a battery being “encrypted” before, but I think they mean there is a serial number check in the firmware somewhere and that it will presumably refuse to work if you replace it. As for the possibility of an “official OnePlus service center” actually existing, there is a business finder on the OnePlus India website, but not one in the US, so it’s looking like mail-in service only.

The tablet is made up of an aluminum unibody that weighs 555 g. The sides are rounded over, which should make it feel comfortable to hold. It comes with four speakers, a USB-C port on the right side, and a set of three pogo pins on the bottom for the keyboard. The back has a circular camera bump that makes it look like a close cousin of the OnePlus 11, and it holds a single 13 MP camera. We also hope you like green, because that appears to be the only color.

There’s no fingerprint sensor at all. There is a cutout that looks like it might be a fingerprint sensor, but we guess that’s just a radio signal window. There’s also no GPS listed on the spec sheet. We know next to nothing about the “OnePlus Magnetic Keyboard” and “OnePlus Stylo” pen. The keyboard has a small trackpad that supports swiping. The pen has a 2 ms response time, which sounds pretty good. That’s about it. Presumably we’ll know more in April.

Listing image by OnePlus

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Report: Sonos’ next flagship speaker will be the spatial audio-focused Era 300

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Enlarge / Sonos One smart speaker.

Sonos will release a new flagship speaker “in the coming months,” according to a report Monday from The Verge. The publication said this will be called the Era 300 and that Sonos is prioritizing the device’s spatial audio capabilities.

The Verge claimed that Sonos is aiming for the Era 300 to be its most accurate speaker yet. It pointed to a heightened focus on making Dolby Atmos content shine, as well as improving music using spatial audio. According to The Verge, the Era 300 will be a “multidirectional speaker built to get the most from spatial audio” by way of a “completely re-architected acoustic design.”

We don’t have deeper details, like specs or pricing. However, Wi-Fi 6 and a USB-C port are apparently “likely,” and Bluetooth support is also possible. According to The Verge, Sonos has at least looked into including all these features on the Era 300.

The Verge first started reporting about the Era 300, codenamed Optimo 2, in August. This week, it identified more evidence of the speaker’s development in the form of two recent documents from TV mount-maker Sanus that name the Era 300.

In August, The Verge, citing “early, work-in-progress images” it reportedly viewed, said that Sonos’ upcoming flagship speaker would include “an arsenal of drivers, including several that fire in different directions from beneath the shell between the front speaker grille and backplate.” It also suggested a more beefed-up product, with twice the RAM and eight times the flash memory as the highest-specced Sonos speaker today.

The Verge also claimed this week that Sonos is working on a lower-priced Era 100, suggesting that it could include Dolby Atmos support and serve as a follow-up to the Sonos One, which has a $179 MSRP as of writing.

Should the Era 300 truly debut soon, it will face competition from Apple’s recent $299, full-sized HomePod revival, which supports spatial audio with Dolby Atmos with Apple apps and Apple TV 4K. Besides superior audio quality, a new Sonos flagship could score points with shoppers by playing better with non-Apple devices, such as by including Bluetooth and by besting the Apple speaker’s Wi-Fi 4 support.

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