GreenTech

In the Accelerator over the Sea

Posted by | artificial intelligence, biotech, conservation, funding, Gadgets, GreenTech, hardware, ocean solutions accelerator, robotics, science, Startups, sustainable ocean alliance, TC | No Comments

In our oceans the scale of disasters is measured in millions, billions, and trillions, while solutions amount to single digits: individuals or institutions working to impact a chosen issue with approaches often both brilliant and quixotic. Putting such individuals in close contact with both whales and billionaires is the strange alchemy being attempted by the Sustainable Ocean Alliance’s Accelerator at Sea.

I and a few other reporters were invited to observe said program, a five-day excursion in Alaska that put recent college graduates, aspiring entrepreneurs, legends of the sea, and soft-spoken financial titans on the same footing: spotting whales from Zodiacs in the morning, learning from one another in the afternoon, and drinking whiskey good and bad under the Northern lights in the pre-dawn dark.

The boat — no, not that big one, or that other big one… yes, that one.

In that time I got to know the dozen or so companies in the accelerator, the second batch from the SOA but the first to experience this oddly effective enterprise. And I also gathered from conversations among the group the many challenges facing conservation-focused startups.

(By way of disclosure, I should say that I was among four press offered a spot on the chartered boat; Those invited, from penniless students to deep-pocketed investors, could join provided they got themselves to Juneau for embarkation.)

The picture painted by just about everyone was one of impending doom from a multiplicity of interlinked trends, and as many different approaches to averting or mitigating that doom as people discussing it.

What’s the problem?

In Silicon Valley one grows so used to seeing enormous sums of money expended on things barely categorizable as irritations, let alone serious problems, that it is a bit bewildering to be presented with the opposite: existential problems being addressed on shoestring budgets by founders actually passionate about their domain.

Throughout the trip, the discussions had at almost every occasion, be it looking for bear prints in a tidal flat or visiting a local salmon hatchery, were about the imminent collapse of natural ecosystems and the far-reaching consequences thereof.

Overfishing, rising water temperatures, deforestation, pollution, strip mining, microplastics — everywhere we looked is a man-made threat that has been allowed to go too far. Not a single industry or species is unaffected.

It’s enough to make you want to throw your hands up and go home, which is in fact what some have advised. But the people on this boat are not them. They were selected for their dedication to conservation and ingenuity in pursuing solutions.

Of course, there’s no “solution” to the million of tons of plastic and oil in the oceans poisoning fish and creating enormous dead zones. There’s no “solution” to climate change. No one expects or promises a miracle cure for nature’s centuries of abuse at human hands.

But there are mitigations, choices we can make and technologies we can opt for where a small change can propagate meaningfully and, if not undo the damage we’ve done, reduce it going forward and make people aware of the difference they can make.

Small fish in a big, scary pond

The trip came right at the beginning of the accelerator, a choice that meant they were only getting started in the program and in fact had never met one another. It also meant in many cases their pitches and business models were less than polished. This is for the most part an early-stage program, and early in the program at that.

That said, the companies may be young but the ideas and technologies are sound. I expect to follow up with many as they perfect their hardware, raise money, and complete pilot projects, but I think it’s important to highlight each one of them, if only briefly. The accelerator’s demo day is actually today, and I wish I could attend to see how the companies and founders have evolved.

Some accelerators are so big and so general-purpose that it was refreshing to have a manageable number of companies all clustered around interlinked issues and united by a common concern. If young entrepreneurs trying to change the world isn’t TechCrunch business, I don’t know what is.

The problems may be multifarious, but I managed to group the startups under two general umbrellas: waste reduction and aquatic intelligence.

But before that I want to mention one that doesn’t fit into either category and for other reasons deserves a shout out.

coral vita

Coral Vita grows corals at many times their normal rate and implants them in dying reefs.

Coral Vita is working on a special method of fast-tracking coral growth and simultaneously selecting for organisms resistant to bleaching and other threats. The founder, Gator Halpern, impressed the importance of the coral systems on us over the trip, as did filmmaker Jeff Orlowski, who directed the harrowing documentaries Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral. (He gave a workshop on storytelling — important when you’re pitching a film or a startup.)

Gator is using a special method to grow corals at 50 times normal rates and hopefully resuscitate reefs around the world, which is awesome, but I wanted to put Coral Vita first because of a horribly apropos coincidence: Hurricane Dorian, the latest in a historically long unbroken line of storms, struck his home and lab in the Bahamas while we were at sea.

It was literally battering the islands while he was supposed to pitch investors, and he used his time instead to ask us to help the victims of the storm. That’s heart. And it serves as a reminder that these are not armchair solutions to invented problems.

If you can spare a buck, you can support Coral Vita and victims of Dorian in the Bahamas here.

Waste reduction

The other companies were addressing problems equally as destructive, if not quite so immediately so.

Humans produce a lot of waste, and a lot of that waste ends up in the ocean, either as whole plastic bags scooping up fish, microplastics poisoning them, or heavier trash cluttering the sea floor. These startups focused on reducing humanity’s deleterious effects on ocean ecosystems.

Cruz Foam is looking to replace one of my least favorite substances, Styrofoam, which I see broken up and mixed in with beach soil and sand all the time. The company has created a process that uses an incredibly abundant and strong material called chitin to create a lightweight, biodegradable packing foam. Chitin is what a lot of invertebrates use to form their shells and exoskeletons, and there’s tons of it out there — but the company has been careful to find ethical sourcing for the volume it need.

Cruz Foam’s chitin-based product, left, and Biocellection’s plastic reduction process.

Biocellection is coming from the other direction, having created a process to break down polyethylenes (i.e. plastics) into smaller molecules that are useful in existing chemical processes. It’s actually upcycling waste plastic rather than repurposing it as a lower grade product.

Loliware was in SOA’s first batch, and creates single-use straws out of kelp material — a timely endeavor, as evidenced by the $6M round A they just pulled in, and backlog of millions of units ordered. Their challenge now is not finding a market but supplying it.

Dispatch Goods and Muuse are taking complementary approaches to reducing single-use items for take-out. Dispatch follows a model in use elsewhere in the world where durable containers are used rather than disposable ones for delivery items, then picked up, washed, and reused. Kind of obvious when you think about it, which is it’s common in other places.

Muuse (formerly Revolv) takes a more tech-centric approach, partnering with coffee shops to issue reusable cups rather than disposable ones. You can keep the cup if you want, or drop it off at a smart collection point and get a refund; RFID tags keep track of the items. Founder Forrest Carroll talked about early successes with this model on semi-closed environments like airports and college campuses.

repurpose screen

Repurpose is aiming to create a way to go “plastic neutral” the way people try to go “carbon neutral.” Companies and individuals can sponsor individual landfills where their plastics go, subsidizing the direct removal and handling costs of a given quantity of trash.

Finless Foods hopes to indirectly reduce the huge amount of cost and waste created by fishing (“sustainable” really isn’t) by creating lab-grown tuna tissue that’s indistinguishable from the real thing. It’s a work in progress, but they’ve got a ton of money so you can probably count on it.

Intelligence and automation

The technology used in the maritime and fishing industries tends toward the “sturdy legacy” type rather than “cutting edge.” That’s changing as costs drop and the benefits of things like autonomous vehicles and IoT become evident.

Ellipsis represents perhaps the most advanced, yet direct, application of the latest tech. The company uses camera-equipped drones using computer vision to inspect rivers and bodies of water for plastics, helping cleanup and response crews characterize and prioritize them. This kind of low-level data is largely missing from cleanup efforts, which gave rise to the name, which refers to both the peripatetic founder Ellie and the symbol indicating missing or omitted information

ellipsis gif

Ellipsis uses computer vision to find plastic waste in water systems.

For larger-scale inspection, autonomous boats like Saildrone are an increasingly valuable tool — but they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and have their own limitations.

EcoDrone is a lower-cost, smaller, customizable autonomous sailboat that costs more like $2,500. Plenty of missions would prefer to deploy a fleet of smaller, cheaper boats than put all their hopes into one vessel.

seaproven

Sea Proven is going the other direction, with a much larger autonomous ship: 20 meters long with a full ton of payload space. That opens up entirely new mission profiles that use sophisticated, large-scale equipment and require long-term presence at sea. The company has two ships now embarking on a mission to track whales in the Mediterranean.

Nets and traps are notoriously dumb, producing a huge amount of “bycatch,” animals caught up in them that aren’t what the fishing vessel was aiming (or licensed) to collect. Smart Catch equips these huge nets with a camera that tracks and characterizes the fish that enter, allowing the owner to watch and monitor them remotely and respond if necessary.

smartcatch

Meanwhile “dumb” traps can still be smarter in other ways. Stationary traps in stormy seas are often lost, dragged along the sea bed to an unknown location, there to sit attracting hapless crab and fish until they fall apart centuries from now. Blue Ocean Gear makes GPS-equipped buoys that can be tracked easily, reducing the risk of losing expensive fishing kit and line, and preventing “ghost fishing.”

Connectivity at sea can be problematic, with satellite often the only real option. Sure, Starlink and others are on their way, but why wait? A system of interconnected floating hubs from ONet could serve as hotspots for ships carrying valuable and voluminous data that would otherwise need to be processed at sea or uploaded at great cost.

screen dashboard cable 1

And integrating all that data with other datasets like those provided by universities, ports, municipalities, NGOs… good luck getting it all in one place. But that’s the goal of SINAY, which is assembling a huge ocean-centric meta-database where users can cross-reference without having to sort or process it locally. Clouds come from oceans, right? So why shouldn’t the ocean be in the cloud?

Accelerator at Sea

The idea of commencing this accelerator program with a trip to southeast Alaska is a fanciful one, no doubt. But an influx of support for the accelerator’s parent organization, the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, made it possible. The SOA raised millions from the mysterious Pine and not-so-mysterious Benioffs, but it also made a deep impression on the founder of Lindblad Expeditions, Sven Lindblad, who offered not just to host the event but to attend and speak at it.

He joined several other experts and interesting people in doing so: Former head of Google X Tom Chi, Value Act’s Jeff Ubben, Gigi Brisson and her Ocean Elders, including Captain (ret.) Don Walsh, the first man to reach the bottom of the Challenger Depths in the Marianas Trench. He’s hilarious, by the way.

I met SOA founder Daniela Fernandez at a TechCrunch event a few years ago when all this was just one of many twinkles in her twinkly eyes, and it’s been rewarding to watch her grow a community around these issues, which have passionate supporters around the globe if you’re willing to look for them and validate their purpose. It’s not a surprise to me at all that she has collected such an impressive group.

The boat, departing from Juneau, made a number of stops at local places of interest, where we would meet locals in the fishing industry, whale researchers, and others, or hear about the local economy ecology from one of the boat’s designated naturalists. In between these expeditions we did team-building exercises, honed pitches, and heard talks from the people mentioned above on hiring practices, investment trends, history.

These people weren’t just plucked from from the void — they are all part of the extended community that the SOA and Fernandez have built over the last few years. The organization was built with the idea of putting young, motivated people together with older, more experienced ones, and that’s just what was happening.

gator jeff workshop

In a way it was what you might expect out of an accelerator program: Connecting startups with industry veterans and investors (of which there were several present) and getting them the advice and exposure they need. There was a pitch competition — the “Otter Sanctuary” (you had to be there).

But there was something very different about doing it this way — on a boat, I mean. In Alaska. With bears, whales, and the northern lights present at every turn.

“For the first time ever, we brought together a community of ocean entrepreneurs from all around the world and allowed them to become fully immersed in the environment that they have been working so hard to protect,” said Craig Dudenhoffer, who runs the accelerator program. “It was amazing to see the entrepreneurs establishing lifelong relationships with each other and with members of the SOA community. It might seem counter-intuitive for a technology entrepreneur, but sometimes you have to disconnect from technology in order to reconnect with your mission.”

In a normal startup accelerator, and in fact for the remainder of this one, aspiring entrepreneurs are living on their own somewhere, coming into a shared office space, attending office hours, meeting VCs in their offices or at demo days. That’s just fine, and indeed what many a startup needs — a peer group, a focal point in space and time, goals and advice.

On the boat, however, these things were present, but secondary to the experience of, say, standing next to someone under the aurora. I’m aware of how that sounds — “it was an experience, man!” — but there’s something fundamentally different about it.

In an office in the Bay Area, there is an established power structure and hierarchy. Schedules are adjusted around meetings, priorities are split, time and attention are devoted in formal 15-minute increments. On the boat there was no hierarchy, or rather the artificial one to which we would cleave in the city was flattened by the scale of what we were learning and experiencing.

You’d be in a zodiac or pressed against the railing with your binoculars, talking about whales and the threat of microplastics with whoever’s next to you in a normal fashion, only to find out they’re a billionaire who you’d never be able to meet directly with at all, let alone on equal terms.

Sitting at breakfast one day the guy next to me started talking about hydrogen-powered trucking — I figured I’d indulge this harmless idealist. In fact it was Jeff Ubben and Value Act was investing millions in an ecosystem they fully expect to take over the west coast. This sort of encounter was happening constantly as people engaged naturally, acting outside the established hierarchies and power structures.

Part of that was the gravity of the issues the startups were facing, and which we were reminded of repeatedly by the impending hurricane, the hatchery warning of salmon apocalypse, the visibly collapsing ecosystems, and perhaps most poignantly by the changes seen personally by Don and Sven, who were been on the seas professionally long before I was even born.

“It’s like salmon eggs”

On the last night of the trip, I shared a glass of wine with Sven to talk about why he was supporting this endeavor, which was undoubtedly expensive and certainly unusual.

“From a business perspective, I depend on the ocean — but there’s a personal connection as well. I’m constantly looking for ways to protect what we depend on,” he began. “We have a fund that generates a couple million dollars a year, and we find different people that we believe in — that have an idea, a passion, intelligence. You meet someone like Daniela, you want to go to bat for them.”

Kristin Hettermann ALASKA SOA 39

“When you’re 21 or whatever, you have all these idealistic thoughts about making a difference in the world. They need support in a variety of ways — advice, finance, mentorship, all these things are part of the puzzle,” he said. “What SOA has done is recognize people that have a good idea. Left to their own devices most of them would probably fail. But we can provide some support, and it’s like with salmon eggs – maybe instead of one in a million surviving, maybe two, or five survive, you know?”

“Tech is a valuable tool, but it has to serve to support an idea. It isn’t the idea. Eliminating plastics and bycatch, making data more useful, putting sonar sensors on robotic boats, all very interesting. We need solutions, actions, ideas, as fast as we can, to accelerate the change in behavior as fast as we can.”

His earnest replies soon became emotional, however, as his core concern for the ocean and planet in general took over.

“We’re fucked,” he said simply. “We are literally destroying the next generation’s future. I’ve been with colleagues and we’ve wept over glasses of wine over what we’re doing.”

“I have two personalities,” he explained. “And most of my friends, associates, scientists have these dual personalities, too. One is when they look in the mirror and talk to themselves — that tends to be more pessimistic. But the other is the external personality, where being pessimistic is not helpful.”

“Something like this really activates that optimism,” he said. “At the end of the day young people have to grab their future, because we sure haven’t done a great job of it. They have to get out there, they have to vote, they have to take control. Because if the system really starts to collapse… I don’t think anyone even begins to understand the magnitude of it. It’s unfathomable.”

The Accelerator at Sea program was a fascinating experience and I’m glad to have taken part. I feel sure it was valuable for the startups as well, and not just because of the $25,000 they were each spontaneously awarded from the investors on board, who in closing remarks emphasized how important it is that startups like these and the people behind them are supported by gatekeepers like venture firms and press.

The combination of good times in nature, stimulating experts and talks, and a group of highly motivated young entrepreneurs was a powerful mixture, and unfortunately one that is difficult to describe even in 3,000 words. But I’m glad it exists and I look forward to following the progress of these companies and the people behind them. You can keep up with the SOA at its website.

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Here’s how much the all-electric Polestar 2 will cost in its launch markets

Posted by | Android, automotive, cars, Environmental Protection Agency, Google Play Store, GreenTech, north america, Polestar, Pricing, TC, Tesla Model S, United States | No Comments

Volvo group’s Polestar electric performance car sub-brand has announced pricing for the Polestar 2, the company’s second production car, a four-door mid-sized fastback that will begin production in 2020 and start shipping as early as next June. Starting prices are set at between 58,800€ (around $63,720 U.S.). Those prices include three years of service and maintenance and European value-added tax (VAT). Polestar also previously communicated that its rough guide pricing for North America was at around $63,000, so this is consistent with that, but the final actual price for American buyers will be revealed later on.

That’s a pretty competitive price in the electric performance sedan market: The Model S starts at $75,000 U.S., for instance. The Polestar 2 is really much more a competitor for the Model 3, however, and is priced more closely to a kitted out version of that vehicle.

In terms of what the Polestar 2 packs in performance, its estimated EPA range is set at around 275 miles (the Model 3 starts at 240 but ranges up quickly to 310 and 325 miles depending on battery options). It offers around 408 horsepower from its 300 kW electric powertrain, again just short of the Model 3 when that’s equipped with its dual-motor performance configuration. Polestar say that it’ll do 0 to 60mph is under five seconds, again sort of in the middle of the pack when you look at the Model 3’s full configuration lineup.

Polestar 2 019

Aside from its electric powertrain, the Polestar 2 will have some other interesting techie twists, including an infotainment system based entirely on Android OS and shipping complete with the full suite of Google services, including Google Assistant and the Google Play Store. This is a deeper integration than just Android Auto, which is powered by an Android phone and basically just displays an interface on the in-car screen.

Like the Model 3, the Polestar 2 will initially launch at a higher price point, with more affordable model variations coming later on, including a base model starting at around $45,000 U.S.

For now, here’s the full list of the prices for the initial markets here Polestar 2 will be available first:

  • Norway NOK 469,000
  • Sweden SEK 659,000
  • Germany EUR 58,800
  • United Kingdom GBP 49,900
  • The Netherlands EUR 59,800
  • Belgium EUR 59,800

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

Posted by | agriculture, artificial intelligence, farming, farmwise, funding, Gadgets, GreenTech, hardware, Recent Funding, robotics, Startups | No Comments

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?

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iFixit gives Fairphone 3 a perfect 10 for repairability

Posted by | Apple, apple inc, Europe, Fairphone, GreenTech, hardware, ifixit, iPhone, Mobile, phil schiller, repairability, smartphone, smartphones, sustainability | No Comments

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.

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

Posted by | climate change, drones, Emerging-Technologies, Europe, Gadgets, Gatwick Airport, GreenTech, Heathrow, quadcopter, robotics, TC, United Kingdom, unmanned aerial vehicles | No Comments

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.”

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This robot crawls along wind turbine blades looking for invisible flaws

Posted by | Gadgets, Government, GreenTech, hardware, robotics, sandia, sandia national labs, science, Wind power, wind turbines | No Comments

Wind turbines are a great source of clean power, but their apparent simplicity — just a big thing that spins — belie complex systems that wear down like any other, and can fail with disastrous consequences. Sandia National Labs researchers have created a robot that can inspect the enormous blades of turbines autonomously, helping keep our green power infrastructure in good kit.

The enormous towers that collect energy from wind currents are often only in our view for a few minutes as we drive past. But they must stand for years through inclement weather, temperature extremes, and naturally — being the tallest things around — lightning strikes. Combine that with normal wear and tear and it’s clear these things need to be inspected regularly.

But such inspections can be both difficult and superficial. The blades themselves are among the largest single objects manufactured on the planet, and they’re often installed in distant or inaccessible areas, like the many you see offshore.

“A blade is subject to lightning, hail, rain, humidity and other forces while running through a billion load cycles during its lifetime, but you can’t just land it in a hanger for maintenance,” explained Sandia’s Joshua Paquette in a news release. In other words, not only do crews have to go to the turbines to inspect them, but they often have to do those inspections in place — on structures hundreds of feet tall and potentially in dangerous locations.

Using a crane is one option, but the blade can also be orientated downwards so an inspector can rappel along its length. Even then the inspection may be no more than eyeballing the surface.

“In these visual inspections, you only see surface damage. Often though, by the time you can see a crack on the outside of a blade, the damage is already quite severe,” said Paquette.

Obviously better and deeper inspections are needed, and that’s what the team decided to work on, with partners International Climbing Machines and Dophitech. The result is this crawling robot, which can move along a blade slowly but surely, documenting it both visually and using ultrasonic imaging.

A visual inspection will see cracks or scuffs on the surface, but the ultrasonics penetrate deep into the blades, making them capable of detecting damage to interior layers well before it’s visible outside. And it can do it largely autonomously, moving a bit like a lawnmower: side to side, bottom to top.

Of course at this point it does it quite slowly and requires human oversight, but that’s because it’s fresh out of the lab. In the near future teams could carry around a few of these things, attach one to each blade, and come back a few hours or days later to find problem areas marked for closer inspection or scanning. Perhaps a crawler robot could even live onboard the turbine and scurry out to check each blade on a regular basis.

Another approach the researchers took was drones — a natural enough solution, since the versatile fliers have been pressed into service for inspection of many other structures that are dangerous for humans to get around: bridges, monuments, and so on.

These drones would be equipped with high-resolution cameras and infrared sensors that detect the heat signatures in the blade. The idea is that as warmth from sunlight diffuses through the material of the blade, it will do so irregularly in spots where damage below the surface has changed its thermal properties.

As automation of these systems improves, the opportunities open up: A quick pass by a drone could let crews know whether any particular tower needs closer inspection, then trigger the live-aboard crawler to take a closer look. Meanwhile the humans are on their way, arriving to a better picture of what needs to be done, and no need to risk life and limb just to take a look.

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Simone Giertz’s converted Tesla Model 3 pickup truck is wonderful

Posted by | automotive, Elon Musk, Gadgets, GreenTech, hardware, pickup truck, simone giertz, TC, Tesla, tesla model 3, Transportation | No Comments

YouTuber Simone Giertz, celebrated DIY inventor, roboticist and general maker of cool stuff, decided not to wait for Tesla’s forthcoming pickup truck. Instead, she bought a Tesla Model 3 direct from the company new and then used elbow grease, ingenuity, some help from friends and power tools to turn it into a two-seater with a flatbed.

The amazing thing is, unlike some of the robots Giertz is famous for making, the final product looks terrific — both in terms of the detail work and in terms of its functionality. Giertz also installed a cage over the truck bed, and a tailgate that can double as a work bench. Plus, as you can see from this fake commercial for the so-called “Truckla,” the thing still rips both on and off-road.

Along with her crew, Giertz rented a dedicated workshop to do the build, which took around two weeks and a lot of sawing at the metal chassis. The team had to rebuild crucial components like the roll cage to ensure that the finished product was still safe.

There’s still work to be done in terms of waterproofing, lifting up the vehicle, giving it a paint makeover and more, per Giertz, but the finished product looks amazing, and potentially better than whatever sci-fi nightmare Elon Musk is putting together for the actual Tesla pickup.

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These ‘microbe-grown’ headphones could be the future of sustainable electronics

Posted by | biodegradable, bioplastics, design, Gadgets, GreenTech, hardware | No Comments

The culture of planned obsolescence in electronics produces a huge amount of toxic waste unlikely to go anywhere but a landfill for the next millennium or so. Nature produces some of the strongest and most versatile substances we’ve ever encountered, so why not use them instead? That’s what Finnish design house Aivan has attempted with this concept pair of headphones made from fungus, bioplastics, and other natural materials.

The idea was to replace everything they could with naturally-derived materials, of which there’s a great variety — but some can be a bit difficult to get your hands on.

As Dezeen reports, the Korvaa headset, everything you see here is natural in origin, although that doesn’t mean they just picked it up in the forest.

The main structure of the headphones is 3D-printed, using a bioplastic created as a byproduct of yeast processing lactic acid. The polylactic acid polymer is strong but flexible enough to be used as the crown and cup shell.

The padded earpieces are made from a protein known as hydrophobin that, like artificial foam, is made up of many tiny bubbles — but these are produced by a fungus and reinforced with plant cellulose. They’re covered with mycelium, another fungus-derived material that’s leathery and flexible.

And on top of those would be a mesh created by spinning out synthetic spider silk — something Bolt Threads is trying to do at scale for ordinary garments.

To be clear, these headphones don’t work — they’re just a prototype or concept product right now. But the point wasn’t to create a fully functioning replacement for your existing headphones. Rather the idea is to show that those headphones don’t need to be made, as they are now, entirely of non-biodegradable materials.

“This was certainly only a surface scratch into where biology-engineered materials are going, and what we can do with them in the future,” one of the group’s designers, Thomas Tallqvist, told Dezeen.

The headphones will be on display at a couple design shows in Finland — here’s hoping someone from Audio Technica or Sennheiser drops by and gets inspired.

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This is one smart device that every urban home could use

Posted by | air pollution, air purifier, artificial intelligence, Europe, Gadgets, GreenTech, machine learning, pollution, smart device, TC | No Comments

Living in a dense urban environment brings many startup-fuelled conveniences, be it near instant delivery of food — or pretty much whatever else you fancy — to a whole range of wheels that can be hopped on (or into) to whisk you around at the tap of an app.

But the biggest problem afflicting city dwellers is not some minor inconvenience. It’s bad, poor, terrible, horrible, unhealthy air. And there’s no app to fix that.

Nor can hardware solve this problem. But smart hardware can at least help.

For about a month I’ve been road-testing a wi-fi connected air purifier made by Swedish company, Blueair. It uses an Hepa filtration system combined with integrated air quality sensors to provide real-time in-app feedback which can be reassuring or alert you to unseen problems.

Flip to the bottom of this article for a speed take or continue reading for the full review of the Blueair Classic 480i with dual filters to reduce dust, smoke and pollen   

Review

If you’re even vaguely environmentally aware it’s fascinating and not a little horrifying to see how variable the air quality is inside your home. Everyday stuff like cooking, cleaning and changing the sheets can cause drastic swings in PM 2.5 and tVOC levels. Aka very small particles such as fine dust, smoke, odours and mite feces; and total volatile organic compounds, which refers to hundreds of different gases emitted by certain solids and liquids — including stuff humans breathe out by also harmful VOCs like formaldehyde.

What you learn from smart hardware can be not just informative but instructive. For instance I’ve switched to a less dusty cat litter after seeing how quickly the machine’s fan stepped up a gear after clearing the litter tray. I also have a new depth of understanding of quite how much pollution finds its way into my apartment when the upstairs neighbour is having a rooftop BBQ. Which makes it doubly offensive I wasn’t invited.

Though, I must admit, I’ve yet to figure out a diplomatic way to convince him to rethink his regular cook-out sessions. Again, some problems can’t be fixed by apps. Meanwhile city life means we’re all, to a greater or lesser degree, adding to the collectively polluted atmosphere. Changing that requires new politics.

You cannot hermetically seal your home against outdoor air pollution. It wouldn’t make for a healthy environment either. Indoor spaces must be properly ventilated. Adequate ventilation is also of course necessary to control moisture levels to prevent other nasty issues like mould. And using this device I’ve watched as opening a window almost instantly reduced tVOC levels.

Pretty much every city resident is affected by air pollution, to some degree. And it’s a heck of a lot harder to switch your home than change your brand of cat litter. But even on that far less fixable front, having an air quality sensor indoors can be really useful — to help you figure out the best (and worst) times to air out the house. I certainly won’t be opening the balcony doors on a busy Saturday afternoon any time soon, for example.

Blueair sells a range of air purifiers. The model I’ve been testing, the Blueair Classic 480i, is large enough to filter a room of up to 40m2. It includes filters capable of filtering both particulate matter and traffic fumes (aka its “SmokeStop” filter). The latter was important for me, given I live near a pretty busy road. But the model can be bought with just a particle filter if you prefer. The dual filtration model I’m testing is priced at €725 for EU buyers.

Point number one is that if you’re serious about improving indoor air quality the size of an air purifier really does matter. You need a device with a fan that’s powerful enough to cycle all the air in the room in a reasonable timeframe. (Blueair promises five air changes per hour for this model, per the correct room size).

So while smaller air filter devices might look cute, if a desktop is all the space you can stretch to you’d probably be better off getting a few pot plants.

Blueair’s hardware also has software in the mix too, of course. The companion Blueair Friend app serves up the real-time feedback on both indoor air quality and out. The latter via a third party service whose provider can vary depending on your location. Where I live in Europe it’s powered by BreezoMeter.

This is a handy addition for getting the bigger picture. If you find you have stubbornly bad air quality levels indoors and really can’t figure out why, most often a quick tab switch will confirm local pollution levels are indeed awful right now. It’s likely not just you but the whole neighbourhood suffering.

Dirty cities 

From Asia to America the burning of fossil fuels has consequences for air quality and health that are usually especially pronounced in dense urban environments where humans increasingly live. More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas — with the UN predicting this will grow to around 70% by 2050.

In Europe, this is already true for more than 70% of the population which makes air pollution a major concern in many regional cities.

Growing awareness of the problem is beginning to lead to policy interventions — such as London’s ultra low emission charging zone and car free Sundays one day a month in Paris’ city center. But EU citizens are still, all too often, stuck sucking in unhealthy air.

London’s toxic air is an invisible killer.

We launched the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone to cut air pollution. Since then, there have been on average 9400 fewer polluting vehicles on our streets every day. #LetLondonBreathe #ULEZ pic.twitter.com/0mYcIGi1xP

— Mayor of London (@MayorofLondon) May 23, 2019

 

Last year six EU nations, including the UK, France and Germany, were referred to the highest court in Europe for failing to tackle air pollution — including illegally high levels of nitrogen dioxide produced by diesel-powered vehicles.

Around one in eight EU citizens who live in an urban area is exposed to air pollutant levels that exceed one or more of the region’s air quality standards, according to a briefing note published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) last year.

It also said up to 96% of EU urban citizens are exposed to levels of one or more air pollutants deemed damaging to health when measured against the World Health Organization’s more stringent guidelines.

There are multiple and sometimes interlinked factors impacting air quality in urban environments. Traffic fumes is a very big one. But changes in meteorological conditions due to climate change are also expected to increase certain concentrations of air pollutants. While emissions from wildfires is another problem exacerbated by drought conditions which are linked to climate change that can also degrade air quality in nearby cities.

Action to tackle climate change continues to lag far behind what’s needed to put a check on global warming. Even as far too little is still being done in most urban regions to reduce vehicular emissions at a local level.

In short, this problem isn’t going away anytime soon — and all too often air quality is still getting worse.

At the same time health risks from air pollution are omnipresent and can be especially dangerous for children. A landmark global study of the impact of traffic fumes on childhood asthma, published recently in the Lancet, estimates that four million children develop the condition every year primarily as a result of nitrogen dioxide air pollution emitted by vehicles.

The majority (64%) of these new cases were found to occur in urban centres — increasing to 90% when factoring in surrounding suburban areas.

The study also found that damage caused by air pollution is not limited to the most highly polluted cities in China and India. “Many high-income countries have high NO2 exposures, especially those in North America, western Europe, and Asia Pacific,” it notes.

The long and short of all this is that cities the world over are going to need to get radically great at managing air quality — especially traffic emissions — and fast. But, in the meanwhile, city dwellers who can’t or don’t want to quit the bright lights are stuck breathing dirty air. So it’s easy to imagine consumer demand growing for in-home devices that can sense and filter pollutants as urbanities try to find ways to balance living in a city with reducing their exposure to the bad stuff.

Cleaner air

That’s not to say that any commercial air purifier will be able to provide a complete fix. The overarching problem of air pollution is far too big and bad for that. A true fix would demand radical policy interventions, such as removing all polluting vehicles from urban living spaces. (And there’s precious little sign of anything so radical on the horizon.)

But at least at an individual home level, a large air purifier with decent filtration technology should reduce your exposure to pollution in the place you likely spend the most time.

If, as the Blueair Classic 480i model does, the filtration device also includes embedded sensors to give real-time feedback on air quality it can further help you manage pollution risk — by providing data so you can better understand the risks in and around your home and make better decisions about, for instance, when to open a window.

“Air quality does always change,” admits Blueair’s chief product officer, Jonas Holst, when we chat. “We cannot promise to our consumers that you will always have super, super, clean air. But we can promise to consumers that you will always have a lot cleaner air by having our product — because it depends on what happens around you. In the outdoor, by your neighbours, if you’re cooking, what your cat does or something. All of those things impact air quality.

“But by having high speeds, thanks to the HepaSilent technology that we use, we can make sure that we always constantly fight that bombardment of pollutants.”

On the technology front, Blueair is using established filtration technology — Hepa and active carbon filters to remove particular matter and gaseous pollutants — but with an ionizing twist (which it brands ‘HepaSilent’).

This involves applying mechanical and electrostatic filtration in combination to enhance performance of the air purifier without boosting noise levels or requiring large amounts of energy to run. Holst dubs it one of the “core strengths” of the Blueair product line.

“Mechanical filtration just means a filter [plus a fan to draw the air through it]. We have a filter but by using the ionization chamber we have inside the product we can boost the performance of the filter without making it very, very dense. And by doing that we can let more air through the product and simply then clean more air faster,” he explains.

“It’s also something that is constantly being developed,” he adds of the firm’s Hepa + ionizing technology, which it’s been developing in its products for some 20 years. “We have had many developments of this technology since but the base technical structure is there in the combination between a mechanical and electrostatical filtration. That is what allows us to have less noise and less energy because the fan doesn’t work as hard.”

On top of that, in the model I’m testing, Blueair has embedded air quality sensors — which connect via wi-fi to the companion app where the curious user can see real-time plots of things like PM 2.5 and tVOC levels, and start to join the dots between what’s going on in their home and what the machine is sniffing out.

The sensors mean the unit can step up and down the fan speed and filtration level automatically in response to pollution spikes (you can choose it to trigger on particulate matter only, or PM 2.5 and tVOC gaseous compounds, or turn automation off altogether). So if you’re really not at all curious that’s okay too. You can just plug it in, hook it to the wi-fi and let it work.

Sound, energy and sensing smarts in a big package

To give a ballpark of energy consumption for this model, Holst says the Blueair Classic 480i consumes “approximately” the same amount of energy as running a lightbulb — assuming it’s running mostly on lower fan speeds.

As and when the fan steps up in response to a spike in levels of potential pollutants he admits it will consume “a little bit more” energy.

The official specs list the model’s energy consumption at between 15-90 watts.

On the noise front it’s extremely quiet when on the lowest fan setting. To the point of being barely noticeable. You can sleep in the same room and certainly won’t be kept awake.

You will notice when the fan switches up to the second or, especially, the third (max) speed — where it can hit 52 dB(A)). The latter’s rushing air sounds are discernible from a distance, even in another room. But you hopefully won’t be stuck listening to level 3 fan noise for too long, unless you live in a really polluted place. Or, well, unless you run into an algorithmic malfunction (more on that below).

As noted earlier, the unit’s smart sensing capabilities mean fan speed can be set to automatically adjust in response to changing pollution levels — which is obviously the most useful mode to use since you won’t need to keep checking in to see whether or not the air is clean.

You can manually override the automation and fix/switch the fan at a speed of your choice via the app. And as I found there are scenarios where an override is essential. Which we’ll get to shortly.

The unit I was testing, a model that’s around two years old, arrived with instructions to let it run for a week without unplugging so that the machine learning algorithms could configure to local conditions and offer a more accurate read on gases and particles. Holst told us that the U.S. version of the 480i is  “slightly updated” — and, as such, this learning process has been eliminated. So you should be able to just plug it in and get the most accurate reads right away. 

The company recommends changing the filters every six months to “ensure performance”, or more if you live in a very polluted area. The companion app tracks days (estimated) remaining running time in the form of a days left countdown.

Looks wise, there’s no getting around the Blueair Classic 480i is a big device. Think ‘bedside table’ big.

You’re not going to miss it in your room and it does need a bigger footprint of free space around it so as not to block the air intake and outlet. Something in the region of ~80x60cm. Its lozenge shape helps by ensuring no awkward corners and with finding somewhere it can be parked parallel but not too close to a wall.

There’s not much more to say about the design of this particular model except that it’s thoughtful. The unit has a minimalist look which avoids coming across too much like a piece of ugly office furniture. While its white and gun metal grey hues plus curved flanks help it blend into the background. I haven’t found it to be an eyesore.

A neat flip up lid hides a set of basic physical controls. But once you’ve done the wi-fi set-up and linked it to the companion app you may never need to use these buttons as everything can be controlled in the app.

Real-time pollution levels at your fingertips

Warning: This app can be addictive! For weeks after installing the unit it was almost impossible to resist constantly checking the pollution levels. Mostly because it was fascinating to watch how domestic activity could send one or other level spiking or falling.

As well as PM 2.5 and tVOC pollutants this model tracks temperature and humidity levels. It offers day, week and monthly plots for everything it tracks.

The day view is definitely the most addictive — as it’s where you see instant changes and can try to understand what’s triggering what. So you can literally join the dots between, for example, hearing a street sweeper below your window and watching a rise in PM 2.5 levels in the app right after. Erk!

Though don’t expect a more detailed breakdown of the two pollutant categories; it’s an aggregated mix in both cases. (And some of the gases that make up the tVOC mix aren’t harmful.)

The month tab gives a longer overview which can be handy to spot regular pollution patterns (though the view is a little cramped on less phablet-y smartphone screens).

While week view offers a more recent snapshot if you’re trying to get a sense of your average pollution exposure over a shorter time frame.

That was one feature I thought the app could have calculated for you. But, equally, more granular quantification might risk over-egging the pudding. It would also risk being mislead if the sensor accuracy fails on you. The overarching problem with pollution exposure is that, sadly, there’s only so much an individual can do to reduce it. So it probably makes sense not to calculate your pollution exposure score.

The app could certainly provide more detail than it does but Holst told us the aim is to offer enough info to people who are interested without it being overwhelming. He also said many customers just want to plug it in and let it work, not be checking out daily charts. (Though if you’re geeky you will of course want the data.)

It’s clear there is lots of simplification going, as you’d expect with this being a consumer device, not a scientific instrument. I found the Blueair app satisfied my surface curiosity while seeing ways its utility could be extended with more features. But in the end I get that it’s designed to be an air-suck, not a time-suck, so I do think they’ve got the balance there pretty much right.

There are enough real-time signals to be able to link specific activities/events with changes in air quality. So you can literally watch as the tVOC level drops when you open a window. (Or rises if your neighbor is BBQing… ). And I very quickly learnt that opening a window will (usually) lower tVOC but send PM 2.5 rising — at least where I live in a dusty, polluted city. So, again, cleaner air is all you should expect.

Using the app you can try and figure out, for instance, optimal ventilation timings. I also found having the real-time info gave me a new appreciation for heavy rain — which seemed to be really great for clearing dust out of the air, frequently translating into “excellent” levels of PM 2.5 in the app for a while after.

Here are a few examples of how the sensors reacted to different events — and what the reaction suggests…

Cleaning products can temporarily spike tVOC levels:

 

Changing bed sheets can also look pretty disturbing…   

 

An evening BBQ on a nearby roof terrace appears much, much worse though:

 

And opening the balcony door to the street on a busy Saturday afternoon is just… insane… 

 

Uh-oh, algorithm malfunction…

After a few minutes of leaving the balcony door open one fateful Saturday afternoon, which almost instantly sent the unit into max fan speed overdrive, I was surprised to find the fan still blasting away an hour later, and then three hours later, and at bedtime, and in the morning. By which point I thought something really didn’t seem right.

The read from the app showed the pollution level had dropped down from the very high spike but it was still being rated as ‘polluted’ — a level which keeps the fan at the top speed. So I started to suspect something had misfired.

This is where being able to switch to manual is essential — meaning I could override the algorithm’s conviction that the air was really bad and dial the fan down to a lower setting.

That override provided a temporary ‘fix’ but the unnaturally elevated ‘pollution’ read continued for the best part of a week. This made it look like the whole sensing capacity had broken. And without the ability to automatically adapt to changing pollution levels the smart air purifier was now suddenly dumb…

 

It turned out Blueair has a fix for this sort of algorithmic malfunction. Though it’s not quick.

After explaining the issue to the company, laying out my suspicion that the sensors weren’t reading correctly, it told me the algorithms are programmed to respond to this type of situation by reseting around seven days after the event, assuming the read accuracy hasn’t already corrected itself by then.

Sure enough, almost a week later that’s exactly what happened. Though I couldn’t find anything to explain this might happen in the user manual, so it would be helpful if they include it in a troubleshooting section.

Here’s the month view showing the crazy PM 2.5 spike; the elevated extended (false) reading; then the correction; followed finally by (relatively) normal service…

 

For a while after this incident the algorithms also seemed overly sensitive — and I had to step in again several times to override the top gear setting as its read on pollution levels was back into the yellow without an obvious reason why.

When the level reads ‘polluted’ it automatically triggers the highest fan speed. Paradoxically, this sometimes seems to have the self-defeating effect of appearing to draw dust up into the air — thereby keeping the PM 2.5 level elevated. So at times manually lowering the fan when it’s only slightly polluted can reduce pollution levels quicker than just letting it blast away. Which is one product niggle.

When viewed in the app the sustained elevated pollution level did look pretty obviously wrong — to the human brain at least. So, like every ‘smart’ device, this one also benefits from having human logic involved to complete the loop.

Concluding thoughts after a month’s use

A few weeks on from the first algorithm malfunction the unit’s sensing capacity at first appeared to have stabilized — in that it was back to the not-so-hair-trigger-sensitivity that had been the case prior to balcony-door-gate.

For a while it seemed less prone to have a sustained freak out over relatively minor domestic activities like lifting clean sheets out of the cupboard, as if it had clicked into a smoother operating grove. Though I remained wary of trying the full bore Saturday balcony door.

I thought this period of relative tranquility might signal improved measurement accuracy, the learning algos having been through not just an initial training cycle but a major malfunction plus correction. Though of course there was no way to be sure.

It’s possible there had also been a genuine improvement in indoor air quality — i.e. as a consequence of, for example, better ventilation habits and avoiding key pollution triggers because I now have real-time air quality feedback to act on so can be smarter about when to open windows, where to shake sheets, which type of cat litter to buy and so on.

It’s a reassuring idea. Though one that requires putting your faith in algorithms that are demonstrably far from perfect. Even when they’re functioning they’re a simplification and approximation of what’s really going on. And when they fail, well, they are clearly getting it totally wrong.

Almost bang on the month mark of testing there was suddenly another crazy high PM 2.5 spike.

One rainy afternoon the read surged from ‘good’ to ‘highly polluted’ without any real explanation. I had opened a patio on the other side of the apartment but it does not open onto a street. This time the reading stuck at 400 even with the fan going full blast. So it looked like an even more major algorithm crash…

Really clean air is impossible to mistake. Take a walk in the mountains far from civilization and your lungs will thank you. But cleaner air is harder for humans to quantify. Yet, increasingly, we do need to know how clean or otherwise the stuff we’re breathing is, as more of us are packed into cities exposed to each others’ fumes — and because the harmful health impacts of pollution are increasingly clear.

Without radical policy interventions we’re fast accelerating towards a place where we could be forced to trust sensing algorithms to tell us whether what we’re breathing is harmful or not.

Machines whose algorithms are fallible and might be making rough guestimates, and/or prone to sensing malfunctions. And machines that also won’t be able to promise to make the air entirely safe to breathe. Frankly it’s pretty scary to contemplate.

So while I can’t now imagine doing without some form of in-home air purifier to help manage my urban pollution risk — I’d definitely prefer that this kind of smart hardware wasn’t necessary at all.

In Blueair’s case, the company clearly still has work to do to improve the robustness of its sensing algorithms. Operating conditions for this sort of product will obviously vary widely, so there’s loads of parameters for its algorithms to balance.

With all that stuff to juggle it just seems a bit too easy for the sensing function to spin out of control.

10-second take

The good

Easy to set up, thoughtful product design, including relatively clear in-app controls and content which lets you understand pollution triggers to manage risk. Embedded air quality sensors greatly extend the product’s utility by enabling autonomous response to changes in pollution levels. Quiet operation during regular conditions. Choice of automated or manual fan speed settings. Filtration is powerful and since using the device indoor air quality does seem cleaner.

The bad

Sensing accuracy is not always reliable. The algorithms appear prone to being confused by air pressure changes indoors, such as a large window being opened which can trigger unbelievably high pollution readings that lead to an extended period of inaccurate readings when you can’t rely on the automation to work at all. I also found the feedback in the app can sometimes lag. App content/features are on the minimalist side so you may want more detail. When the pollution level is marginal an elevated fan speed can sometimes appear to challenge the efficacy of the filtration as if it’s holding pollution levels in place rather than reducing them.

Bottom line

If you’re looking for a smart air purifier the Blueair Classic 480i does have a lot to recommend it. Quiet operation, ease of use and a tangible improvement in air quality, thanks to powerful filtration. However the accuracy of the sensing algorithms does pose a dilemma. For me this problem has recurred twice in a month. That’s clearly not ideal when it takes a full week to reset. If it were not for this reliability issue I would not hesitate to recommend the product, as — when not going crazy — the real-time feedback it provides really helps you manage a variety of pollution risks in and around your home. Hopefully the company will work on improving the stability of the algorithms. Or at least offer an option in the app so you can manually reset it if/when it does go wrong.

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MIT’s ‘cyber-agriculture’ optimizes basil flavors

Posted by | agriculture, artificial intelligence, food, Gadgets, GreenTech, hardware, hydroponics, machine learning, MIT, science | No Comments

The days when you could simply grow a basil plant from a seed by placing it on your windowsill and watering it regularly are gone — there’s no point now that machine learning-optimized hydroponic “cyber-agriculture” has produced a superior plant with more robust flavors. The future of pesto is here.

This research didn’t come out of a desire to improve sauces, however. It’s a study from MIT’s Media Lab and the University of Texas at Austin aimed at understanding how to both improve and automate farming.

In the study, published today in PLOS ONE, the question being asked was whether a growing environment could find and execute a growing strategy that resulted in a given goal — in this case, basil with stronger flavors.

Such a task is one with numerous variables to modify — soil type, plant characteristics, watering frequency and volume, lighting and so on — and a measurable outcome: concentration of flavor-producing molecules. That means it’s a natural fit for a machine learning model, which from that variety of inputs can make a prediction as to which will produce the best output.

“We’re really interested in building networked tools that can take a plant’s experience, its phenotype, the set of stresses it encounters, and its genetics, and digitize that to allow us to understand the plant-environment interaction,” explained MIT’s Caleb Harper in a news release. The better you understand those interactions, the better you can design the plant’s lifecycle, perhaps increasing yield, improving flavor or reducing waste.

In this case the team limited the machine learning model to analyzing and switching up the type and duration of light experienced by the plants, with the goal of increasing flavor concentration.

A first round of nine plants had light regimens designed by hand based on prior knowledge of what basil generally likes. The plants were harvested and analyzed. Then a simple model was used to make similar but slightly tweaked regimens that took the results of the first round into account. Then a third, more sophisticated model was created from the data and given significantly more leeway in its ability to recommend changes to the environment.

To the researchers’ surprise, the model recommended a highly extreme measure: Keep the plant’s UV lights on 24/7.

Naturally this isn’t how basil grows in the wild, since, as you may know, there are few places where the sun shines all day long and all night strong. And the arctic and antarctic, while fascinating ecosystems, aren’t known for their flavorful herbs and spices.

Nevertheless, the “recipe” of keeping the lights on was followed (it was an experiment, after all), and incredibly, this produced a massive increase in flavor molecules, doubling the amount found in control plants.

“You couldn’t have discovered this any other way,” said co-author John de la Parra. “Unless you’re in Antarctica, there isn’t a 24-hour photoperiod to test in the real world. You had to have artificial circumstances in order to discover that.”

But while a more flavorful basil is a welcome result, it’s not really the point. The team is more happy that the method yielded good data, validating the platform and software they used.

“You can see this paper as the opening shot for many different things that can be applied, and it’s an exhibition of the power of the tools that we’ve built so far,” said de la Parra. “With systems like ours, we can vastly increase the amount of knowledge that can be gained much more quickly.”

If we’re going to feed the world, it’s not going to be done with amber waves of grain, i.e. with traditional farming methods. Vertical, hydroponic, computer-optimized — we’ll need all these advances and more to bring food production into the 21st century.

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