News Article | April 30, 2017
It started with a crowdfunding startup, an investment from Prince, and the idea to help new solar companies tackle business challenges that can be hard to overcome on their own. Now, four years later, the idea has morphed into a group called Powerhouse, and notably, in a world flush with tech startups, it’s one of the only incubators out there focused on launching and growing solar companies. Powerhouse runs an accelerator and an incubator program. An accelerator typically provides a small amount of funding, free or low-cost office space, and networking opportunities with investors and customers for young companies that are still developing their first technology and business plans. Since its launch in 2013, Powerhouse has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars collectively into 15 startups, and this summer plans to welcome another few solar entrepreneurs into the program. The group’s incubator division rents office space to more established solar and energy startups across 15,000 sq ft and three floors in downtown Oakland, California. Sometimes the accelerator entrepreneurs graduate into rent-paying companies in the co-working space. Powerhouse now hosts about 15 companies and about 100 people across both groups. Its goal is simple. The organization wants to play a unique role in fostering a new wave of tech innovation in the solar market. Many of the Powerhouse companies are using software, data and the web to make selling or designing solar systems cheaper and easier. They rely on the advice and networking opportunities through Powerhouse to raise money, find customers or exit – through an initial public offering or acquisition. “Powerhouse gave us so much validation and credibility at the beginning, when we didn’t have much to show. It was just enough to get people to believe in us,” says Elena Lucas, the co-founder and CEO of UtilityAPI, an energy data startup. An earlier wave of solar startups was dominated by companies experimenting with different materials and designs for solar cells and panels. Many of those materials-focused solar startups failed in getting the desired technical performance despite large investments from the Bay Area’s venture capitalists. As the price of solar panels dropped dramatically in recent years, the new generation of entrepreneurs and startups are chipping away at other stubborn problems, such as shortening the time it takes to get permits or honing the sales pitch to homeowners. It’s like when fast internet connections finally got cheap and ubiquitous enough to attract the entrepreneurial-minded to build new websites and services on top of it. Tough challenges remain for solar startups. Big utilities and power companies, who are potential investors or customers, don’t generally have experience working with young, renewable energy companies. Meanwhile, US government funding for energy innovation is minimal, particularly with potential federal budget cuts looming and a lack of clean energy support in the White House. But as solar energy becomes cheaper, it’s attracting public and private investments worldwide, evidenced by the $116bn that flowed into solar projects, companies and technologies in 2016, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “The ultimate mission of Powerhouse is to make solar energy the most accessible form of energy in the world,” says Emily Kirsch, co-founder of Powerhouse. Sitting on a bean bag in a nook of the seventh floor of Powerhouse’s headquarters, Kirsch says that despite the rise and success of Silicon Valley-style tech accelerators such as Y Combinator and Techstars, no one else has tried to do the same targeting only the solar industry: “We’re it so far.” The group’s model is showing some success, at least on a small scale, though it’s still early days. Powerhouse takes a small equity stake in its accelerator companies and makes money if they get acquired or go public. Currently Powerhouse gets the bulk of its investment money from a combination of grants, corporate sponsors, like SolarCity and SunPower, and office space rental fees. It’s considering raising money from angel investors so that it could make larger investments and in more companies. None of the companies in its portfolio has gone public or been bought yet, but some of them have attracted funding since going through the accelerator program and increased the value of the companies in the process. Kirsch says the top startups in the accelerator program have seen their values increase by as many as 40 times. Four of the startups in its incubator program have been acquired so far, says Kirsch, though the company doesn’t take a stake in those. But their exits help to build Powerhouse’s reputation among entrepreneurs and investors. Kirsch has been involved since day one. Years ago, when Kirsch was working for Van Jones, an environmental and human rights activist who briefly served as a green jobs adviser to former President Obama, he asked her if she would be interested in helping the then new startup called Solar Mosaic, which provides financing to install solar panels on rooftops, pilot a solar program in Oakland. Meanwhile Jones’s friend Prince was looking to invest a quarter of a million dollars into solar projects in Oakland, and ended up funding Solar Mosaic’s first four solar buildings. Based on that experience – connecting a young solar startup with partners and capital – Kirsch and Danny Kennedy, a former Greenpeace campaign manager who co-founded solar installer Sungevity, launched a company to try to see if the model could work for many more young solar companies. They changed the name of the company, SFunCube, to Powerhouse two years ago. On a visit earlier this year to Powerhouse’s headquarters, dozens of entrepreneurs were heads down working on their products and mingling with potential partners during a weekly open house event. The Powerhouse team connected UtilityAPI with its first investor, Better Ventures, as well as an adviser, Jon Wellinghoff, who is a former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. After going through the accelerator program, UtilityAPI, which creates software to collect data about a building’s energy use and deliver it to customers such as solar or energy storage installers, has grown to nine people from the two co-founders. It now has an office space on the sixth floor of Powerhouse after previously using shared desks. Lucas says the co-working space served as a “brain trust” because all the entrepreneurs brought with them different types of expertise. That allowed her to get quick answers about energy policy or technical standards. Another accelerator program graduate, BrightCurrent, which works with big box retailers and solar companies on marketing solar panels and installation services, now employs 120 people and became profitable last year, says John Bourne, the co-founder and CEO of the five-year-old company. Bourne says Powerhouse helped his company connect with investors (like Better Ventures) and customers and hone his sales pitch. During the accelerator program, Bourne met with Kirsch or Kennedy once a week to walk through BrightCurrent’s plans and brainstorm for ways to overcome obstacles. “It can be really isolating, lonely and tough being an entrepreneur. You’re working alone and trying to build something,” Bourne says. When he joined, Powerhouse was operating out of Sungevity’s offices and, he says: “It was a warm great environment, and I found people who cared about what I cared about. That was a huge win for me.” Solar Mosaic’s co-founder and CEO, Billy Parish, says that his company – which is now six years old and employs more than 150 people – has partnered with at least three of the Powerhouse startups on projects, including UtilityAPI, Sunible and BrightCurrent. “Powerhouse is one of the hubs of the solar ecosystem and they are helping bring breakthrough ideas for the industry into existence. Being close to them keeps us in touch with those new ideas and entrepreneurs,” says Parish. In total numbers, Powerhouse is still pretty small. Its companies have contributed to the installation of 242 megawatts of solar, employ 386 people, and have generated $52m in revenue. That’s probably the group’s biggest drawback – it’s limited, it’s very narrowly focused and it’s still operating on a tiny scale. But they’re part of a larger movement to invest and nurture new companies in low-carbon energy. Other companies running energy-related accelerator programs include Cyclotron Road, which has partnered with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Otherlab in the Mission District of San Francisco. Last year, Bill Gates and a group of investors launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures to spend $1bn on early stage breakthroughs in energy. Powerhouse co-founder Danny Kennedy, who now heads up the California Clean Energy Fund, describes the importance of ventures like Powerhouse and the California Clean Energy Fund like this: “We need early-stage energy investing programs now more than ever to enable the energy transition. It’s critical.”
News Article | December 12, 2016
Bill Gates just revealed more information about his plan, first unveiled about a year ago, to bring together a group of billionaires to fund breakthroughs in energy technology that can fight climate change. The group, which has a collective net worth of $170 billion, is one of the most star-studded and diverse ever assembled to fund any kind of technology innovation. But will the big new fund be more successful than the mostly lackluster attempt at cleantech investing of the past decade? On Monday, Gates and his group announced a new $1 billion fund -- called Breakthrough Energy Ventures -- which will invest in science-based energy research, entrepreneurs and companies in areas like generating cheap clean energy, capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions, and making buildings more energy-efficient. The fund plans to make investments in both early-stage tech projects and later-stage companies. Unlike a traditional VC fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures plans to make investments over a 20-year period, intends to offer larger amounts of capital to companies that can be commercialized, and also plans to partner closely with university labs. The fund includes investments from well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalists John Doerr and Vinod Khosla, who both led cleantech investments at their firms over the past several years. Among the list of 21 investors, big names include Alibaba founder Jack Ma, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Virgin founder Richard Branson and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Board members include energy hedge fund manager John Arnold, the Chairman of Reliance Mukesh Ambani, SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner, as well as Ma, Khosla and Doerr. Gates is listed as the chairman of the board. The fund will be a rare source of new financing for energy tech innovation, an area which has been fairly neglected in recent years in many regions. About a decade ago, many investors in Silicon Valley jumped into funding cleantech startups, but years later many dropped those efforts after losing money. High-profile cleantech failures like solar startup Solyndra, electric car company Fisker Automotive, and biofuel company KiOR scared off many. However, the devil will be in the details for how the fund plans to make its investments, and if it will be more successful than past attempts. Gates, Khosla and Doerr have already funded dozens of companies around energy storage, biofuels and solar manufacturing with few big wins to show so far. Will the trio use Breakthrough Energy Ventures to double down on their prior model of investing, just with a bigger fund and with capital outside of the confines of their firms? According to the investors on a media call on Monday afternoon, their cleantech investing will be different this time around. Gates, Doerr and Khosla gave every indication on the call that the fund would take full advantage of everything they’ve learned from the industry’s past mistakes. Doerr described the fund as “bespoke,” and designed “for the unique nature of the opportunity.” “We’ll take a lot of learnings over the last decade of energy investing and apply them here,” he said. Doerr described the lessons learned as: Energy tech breakthroughs need to be revolutionary instead of evolutionary, technologies need to have a clear market and the innovations need to be backed by an outstanding team. Investors also need to take “a really long point of view,” and also be willing to put two, three or maybe even five times more capital into companies than in an average VC investment, said Doerr. He also noted that winning with energy tech breakthroughs is “harder than usual.” “I can’t guarantee that it will happen,” said Doerr on commercializing successful energy tech companies, but he said the group is focused on enabling better, faster and cheaper energy and a zero-carbon planet by 2050. “I would never underestimate the power of energy entrepreneurs to change the game here,” said Doerr. Khosla said that the fund would give investors the “ability to be patient and take larger risks.” That type of investing can also create a much better opportunity for returns, said Khosla. However, the board members didn’t provide more details on what expected returns might look like or how deals would be structured. Arnold said the fund would only make an investment if the technology could have a large impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In that way, the group is very mission-focused. Gates said that investors would take more of a hands-on approach with entrepreneurs and companies, helping them find strategic partners and follow-on financing. Within the next three months, Breakthrough Energy Ventures plans to hire managers to make its investments and do due diligence on entrepreneurs and research ideas. It’s unclear just how much involvement and influence the board members like Gates, Doerr and Khosla would have over investment choices. The selection of the management team will be very important to determine just how different this cleantech investing project will be, compared to past efforts. Will these folks come from the traditional Silicon Valley venture capital world? After it became clear that the traditional Silicon Valley model of VC investing hasn’t worked so far for cleantech, a variety of new models have been introduced. Those include Cyclotron Road, which is collaborating closely with university labs; the energy research shop of Otherlab; regionally focused groups like the Energy Excelerator; and industry-focused projects like Powerhouse. Former Khosla Ventures partner Andrew Chung recently launched a $200 million fund with 1955 Capital to invest in technologies to manage resources in emerging markets like China. Whatever team ends up managing Breakthrough Energy Ventures, they should be well versed in what’s worked and what hasn’t. Breakthrough Energy Ventures says it plans to invest on a 20-year horizon, instead of the typical VC model which expects returns in a much shorter time period, like five years. Breakthrough investors will also be willing to put in larger funding rounds -- seven-, eight- and nine-figure investments -- into established companies that can be commercialized, said Arnold. The fund, which has a pool structure, has already had a first close with a commitment of a billion dollars, and plans to have a second close in the spring of 2017. The fund will also invest internationally, said the board members. The investors, like Khosla, still plan to make their own investments through their own firms. Arnold said on the call that the group is developing a “conflict of interest” policy to examine investments by Breakthrough Energy Ventures compared to investments backed by funds from board member’s own firms. While the board members said all the right things on the media call, the fund appears to be an evolved venture capital fund with some important different parameters. But will that be different enough to get different results? The question remains if any form of venture capital is really appropriate to fund difficult-to-achieve energy tech innovations.
News Article | May 12, 2017
You’re sitting at your desk in shirtsleeves sweating, while the person in the cubicle next to you is wrapped in a heavy sweater. Rather than turn up the A/C, you slip into a special pair of shoes and start to cool down. Meanwhile, your shivering coworker’s sweater begins to thicken automatically. On your way out of work, you check your phone. There’s a bus pulling up — if you take it, you can earn a discount on a future bus ride. You leave your car in the office garage and hop on public transit. When you get home, you plug in your phone to recharge. The device features a fast-charging solid-state Lithium ion battery. Unlike your old Samsung Galaxy Note7 — which once erupted in flames — your new cell phone will never spontaneously catch on fire. These developments sound futuristic — and they are. But they are on their way, thanks in part to a novel federal research program that supports new ways to generate, store, save and use energy. In 2007, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine proposed a program modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which gave us GPS, the stealth fighter and the internet. Congress approved its corollary, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy(ARPA-E), and President George W. Bush signed the authorization into law. ARPA-E began officially funding projects in 2009. While Congress plans to increase the budget of the program by $15 million for 2017, President Trump called for the elimination of ARPA-E in his proposed budget for 2018. Scientists and business leaders fear they will lose an essential source of research funding. In an open letter addressed to ranking members of the House and Senate subcommittees on Energy and Water, a coalition of research universities and private companies wrote that “sustained funding is necessary to ensure this successful program continues to spearhead America’s energy research.” Businesses are generally reluctant to invest in high-risk projects, even where the potential payoff is high. Through programs like ARPA-E, the federal government is investing in research the private sector won’t do. Much of this research will prove fruitless, but some will deliver new technologies, spurring the creation of new companies and new jobs. New technologies tend to be costly at first. By funding transformative research, ARPA-E is helping the most promising innovations outperform existing technologies. Source: ARPA-E “ARPA-E was successful in stimulating not only the high-tech, high-value jobs that we created with the direct funds, but now jobs in ongoing industries that have been created as part of these efforts,’’ said Saul Griffith, CEO of the San Francisco startup OtherLab, in a letter published in the Mercury News. OtherLab, a private research firm funded by an ARPA-E grant, is creating garments that expand or contract in response to body temperature. Other ARPA-E grants have gone to universities, small businesses and nonprofits. The proportion of ARPA-E projects headed by different kinds of institutions. FFRDC refers to federally funded research and development centers. Source: ARPA-E Critics have chastised President Trump, who promised to be “the greatest job producer God has ever created,” for pushing to eliminate ARPA-E, which is giving a boost to the private sector. “This program was set up specifically for innovation, and to create new companies and jobs,” said Eric Wachsman, director of the University of Maryland’s Energy Research Center. Wachsman is helping to develop the new solid-state Lithium ion battery. “It’s not just creating technology, but commercializing it.” Since its inception, ARPA-E has funded more than 400 projects, many of them on their way to the marketplace. These include the three innovations described at the top of this story. They offer a vivid example of the sort of transformative research funded by ARPA-E. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning account for around 40 percent of the energy used in a typical American household, according to SRI International, a research company working with scientists from Stanford and UCLA to design a wearable cooling device. ARPA-E is supporting their work with a $3.8 million grant. “It takes less energy if you heat or cool people directly, rather than heat or cool an entire building,” said Roy Kornbluh, a research engineer at SRI International. Kornbluh and his colleagues created a special shoe with a small cooling device that works like an automotive cooling system. It circulates water cooled by a battery-operated fan small enough to fit in the sole of a shoe. Consumers will be able to control the device with their smartphones. When working, “it feels like you are standing on a nice cool tile,” Kornbluh said. Otherlab, a private research company, has invented a fabric that changes in thickness in response to temperature fluctuations, with the help of a $1.8 million ARPA-E grant. “It’s clothing that will make you comfortable, without your having to go find that sweater,” said Brent Ridley, a senior research scientist at the company. The researchers pair together common materials like polyester and nylon, and spin the yarns in a way that allows the clothing to expand or contract in response to temperature. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are using real-time data about traffic, local weather, and other variables to encourage travelers to choose more energy-efficient modes of transportation. Their system, funded with a $3.9 million ARPA-E grant, will urge travelers to pick specific modes of travel, departure times, vehicle types and driving styles to save energy. But that’s not all. Travelers will earn tokens for discounted goods and services from participating companies each time they make an energy-smart decision — the more energy they save each trip, the greater the prize. Alternatively, they can swap their tokens with other users. The app will customize choices to the individual’s specific likings. “If the system tells you to walk for an hour and you get sweaty, you won’t like it — that’s why we learn your preferences,” Carlos Lima Azevedo, a research scientist at MIT’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Lab. “It will only show you what you are likely to use. If you won’t give up your car, we’ll show you lots of energy-saving routes — although we may ultimately suggest a bus once in a while, because that’s where the savings will be greater.” Lithium ion batteries are found in virtually all electronic devices. They pack a lot of punch in a very small space. The problem is that they rely on a highly flammable organic liquid electrolyte, which can erupt in flames. Lithium ion batteries have caught fire in laptops, smartphones, hover boards, Boeing 787 Dreamliners and e-cigarettes. Samsung discontinued its popular Galaxy Note 7 smartphone last fall after a number of them exploded. The company took a financial hit estimated to be in the billions. Researchers at the University of Maryland, supported by a $900,000 ARPA-E grant, have a developed a new Lithium ion battery with a solid electrolyte made of a ceramic which cannot burn. Wachsman and his collaborators developed techniques to coat the ceramic, allowing the lithium metal to wet its surface and enable conductivity. The resulting battery works just as efficiently as conventional batteries. It’s also less expensive and charges quickly, Wachsman said. Initially, the battery will be sold for cell phones and laptops, but researchers also are talking to auto suppliers about eventually scaling it up for electric cars. “Batteries are ubiquitous,” Wachsman said. “You can use batteries for almost everything, and a new, safer battery will have a huge impact on consumer products that everyone has.” Moreover, he added, eliminating ARPA-E and the work it supports, including programs to develop new batteries, “is not going to make more of us buy coal.”
News Article | February 22, 2017
When most people hear the word “drone” they either think of uncrewed military aircraft or those multi-rotor mini-copters that could one day deliver packages to your doorstep. But what if the package is the plane? That’s the idea behind the Aerial Platform Supporting Autonomous Resupply Actions drone, a cardboard glider that carries about two pounds of cargo. “It looks like a pizza box that’s been shaped into a wing,” says Star Simpson, an engineer at San Francisco robotics company Otherlab. Her team designed and built Apsara with funding from Darpa, which challenged them to develop a single-use delivery vehicle for emergency scenarios. But, Darpa being Darpa, there was a twist: The drones had to not only carry a small payload and land where you told them to—once they were on the ground, they had to disappear. Cardboard was an obvious choice. It’s cheap, lightweight, and can decompose in a matter of months. Plus, the material has a proven track record among drone hobbyists. The Apsara advances cardboard-drone design with something Simpson calls origami thinking; her team’s three-foot-wide drone is made of scored and laser-cut cardboard sheets that take about an hour to fold and tape together. Simpson calls it the world’s most functional paper airplane. Cardboard is the first step on the path toward drones that degrade quickly and completely. The Apsara’s final design actually calls for a mushroom-based material called mycelium, which Simpson says should decompose in a matter of days, not months. The next trick: Make the drone’s electronics disappear. Today, the Apsara uses a GPS unit and two wing-flap motors to bring it within 50 feet of a preprogrammed landing spot, but Darpa has another project devoted to ephemeral electronics that could soon allow it to leave almost no trace. That’s important. The Apsara is designed to be deployed by the hundreds or thousands, to deliver supplies during a humanitarian crisis, or in a battle’s aftermath. For security and ecological reasons alike, the last thing anyone wants is a landscape covered in drone bits. Now an Otherlab spin-off company called Everfly is hoping to refine the prototype for use by humanitarian groups like the Red Cross or MSF. Simpson thinks Everfly can scale the design to carry a 22-pound payload (that’s about 120 Clif bars). While it may not be as sexy as a whirring drone carrying your UPS package, we bet anyone in dire straits would be more than happy to see a mushroom wing full of energy bars gently floating in for a landing.
Agency: National Aeronautics and Space Administration | Branch: | Program: SBIR | Phase: Phase II | Award Amount: 1.50M | Year: 2015
We have invented a new class of robotics, called `Pneubotics', that rival current manipulators in payload and reach at 1/10th the weight. Our technology leverages insights into lightweight materials and mass manufacturing to create robots that derive power, structure, and movement from pressurized air. As a result, drive trains, motors, bearings, shafts, sliding surfaces, and excess structural material are eliminated, leading to robots with extremely high strength to weight ratios, inherently human safe operation, and high degrees of freedom at low part count. This transformative new technology has the potential to enable the widespread use of automated handling of material and equipment on missions in low Earth orbit and beyond. The compliant nature of these robotic systems allows them to robustly grasp arbitrarily shaped objects and makes them ideal for operating around sensitive equipment and materials or cooperatively with humans. Similarly, due to their fluidic architecture they can be deflated and stowed for efficient transport. The work described in this phase II SBIR proposal would integrate the component development and analysis performed in Phase I to build and test a full prototype manipulation system. By incorporating optical, internal, and tactile sensors and multi-level controls that take advantage of the unique characteristics of the manipulator and seek out appropriate contact to guide motion rather than avoiding it. By testing the entire prototype system in the field we will demonstrate operation in the ground environment and learn valuable lessons for IVA and EVA applications.
Agency: National Aeronautics and Space Administration | Branch: | Program: SBIR | Phase: Phase I | Award Amount: 113.83K | Year: 2014
We have invented a new class of robotics, called `Pneubotics', that rival current manipulators in payload and reach at 1/10th the weight. Our technology leverages insights into lightweight materials and mass manufacturing to create robots that derive power, structure, and movement from pressurized air. As a result, drive trains, motors, bearings, shafts, sliding surfaces, and excess structural material are eliminated, leading the way for robots that exhibit extremely high strength to weight ratios, inherent human safe operation, and high degrees of freedom at comparatively low part count. This transformative new technology has the potential to enable the widespread use of automated material handling on missions beyond low earth orbit. The compliant nature of these robotic systems allows them to robustly grasp arbitrarily shaped objects and make them ideal for operating around sensitive equipment or cooperatively with humans. Similarly, due to their fluidic architecture they can be deflated and stowed for efficient transport. The work described in this phase I SBIR proposal aims to develop the key technological components that will allow the production of Pneubotic systems, including novel pressure vessel based fabric actuator design, a pneumatic power architecture that exceeds electromagnetic efficiency, and dynamic models of inflated fabric structures. These components will enable the construction of a full prototype manipulation system in phase II.
Agency: National Aeronautics and Space Administration | Branch: | Program: STTR | Phase: Phase I | Award Amount: 124.98K | Year: 2016
We propose that the key to robotic automation in unstructured environments is compliant robotic manipulators that can tolerate, sense, and leverage contact in a feedback loop. We will demonstrate an instrumented end-effector that will be capable of enhanced perception through observed and controlled contact. This approach requires: (i) a network of sensors capable of capturing the highly compliant state of the soft robot and high resolution tactile sensors for multi-point contact, (ii) integrating these sensors with a core embedded system capable of processing large arrays of sensor data and (iii) development of algorithms that can extract state/tactile information to serve as high frequency feedback to the control system. The goal of this STTR is to transfer the promising technology of elastomeric sensors from the Purdue Faboratory's research setting into a commercial product. These sensors present a solution to the remaining piece of the puzzle of how to manage and leverage the additional degrees of freedom of Pneubotics' compliant systems. Towards this goal, Otherlab will serve as the commercial expert with a deployable platform. We will provide requirements and specifications for the sensor design as well as insight into integration challenges and cost constraints. The Faboratory will serve as the experts on liquid-embedded elastomeric sensors, optimizing the design and fabrication methods to serve the commercial applications. The full system demonstrations proposed in this Phase I are feasible because we will exploit the Pneubotics' manipulators and gripper designs that Otherlab has developed through government grants (NASA, DARPA), commercial partners, and private funding.
News Article | March 2, 2017
An aircraft flying at night drops a flock of unpowered drones. They carry food, medicines and batteries. After delivering their load on the ground, the drones vaporize into thin air within hours. Disposable drones that can make precise deliveries before vanishing may look like a product of Stark Industries. But the fictional giant of military technology run by Tony "Iron Man" Stark has nothing to do with them. Instead, the development of "disappearing delivery vehicles" is a project by DARPA, the Department of Defense's research and development agency. DARPA, officially called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is working with several companies in the field of ephemeral materials to achieve a prototype. The name of the $8 million program is ICARUS (Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems), which alludes to the mythological hero who flew too close to the sun by using wings made of wax and feathers. The program aims to mimic the material transience that is depicted in the myth. In fact, finding a balance between the properties of the material to build disposable drones is the main challenge, says Troy Olsson, ICARUS program manager. "The material [which disposable drones will be made of] has to be reliable enough to enable the flight," but then be able to vanish after delivering its payload, he says. Options range from cardboard to polymer-based or glass-based materials. San Francisco firm Otherlab, for example, received a grant of about $1 million from DARPA in 2015 to develop cardboard-made expandable and disposable drones, according to Mikell Taylor, team lead of the project at Otherlab. All the disposable drones under development as part of ICARUS are, technically, gliders — they don't have motors like traditional drones. They have to be dropped by an aircraft and then take advantage of the wind. An on-board navigation system allows disposable drones to correct their course and land in a precise location. While the drone is flying, on-board sensors are supposed to measure wind and adjust its path accordingly. "[Disposable drones] fly themselves, which is a difference with commercial drones," which are remotely operated, Olsson notes. Ideally, disposable drones could carry payloads of three to 10 pounds. The dream result would be a prototype glider that travels from 150 to 200 kilometers [93 to 124 miles] when dropped from 35,000 feet, lands within 10 meters [33 feet] of its target and vanishes within four hours after delivering its load, Olsson says. Otherlab researchers did some actual testing. Taylor says they used off-the-shelf traditional drones to drop disposable ones from below 400 feet, the maximum altitude drones are allowed to operate under Federal Aviation Administration rules. Later, at an Army facility, researchers were able to drop disposable vehicles from 1,000 feet, she says. "We bought all the materials we used off the shelves to focus on the airframe design," she says. DARPA wants the disposable drones to be low-cost — from $250 to a couple of thousand dollars each, including the guidance and navigation system that combined are the size of a tennis ball, according to Olsson. In the battlefield, applications of disposable drones would range from bringing medicines to injured soldiers to providing any critical supply — food, batteries or electrical components — to helping troops that encounter an unexpected situation. But disposable drones may also come in handy as part of a wide-scale response to earthquakes or other disasters, when people need humanitarian supplies. "We are competing with parachute dropping, and the precision of landing is the difference," Taylor says. "For disposable drones, the range of landing accuracy is 50 feet. In an emergency situation, you want that precision."
News Article | February 15, 2017
That’s apparently what engineers at Amazon think could happen with its much-touted delivery drones. While the e-commerce giant has already delivered packages to paying customers in the U.K. using its aircraft, it did so by landing in a large patch of open ground. Now, in a patent, it has outlined how it could drop packages from the air instead. The patent describes a way to reliably eject a payload from a drone in midflight. Usually, such a drop would see the package descend along a parabolic arc, caused by the forward motion of the aircraft—but that might not jive too well with the neighbors. Instead, Amazon's idea is to apply a force as the package leaves the drone to have it descend vertically. It also suggests that the package container could have some simple built-in method of correcting its descent. It may, for instance, feature aileron-like flaps that can tweak its course, with instructions relayed wirelessly from the drone above. Amazon isn’t the only company to think that dropping parcels from the air without a motor is a good idea. The San Francisco-based startup Otherlab recently unveiled its own disposable cardboard drones, which glide a payload to their destination once dropped from a larger mother ship. But for all these bright ideas, regulations still stand in the way of drone delivery in most parts of the world—that’s why Amazon is testing the idea in rural England, after all. Until that changes, the only parcel drop you’re going to get is from the height of your mailbox.
News Article | February 15, 2017
We've recently written about a fantastic aid program in Rwanda where drones are used to quickly get medical supplies like blood and medicines to villages that can't be reached by car or motorbike. In that case, small drones fly out from a central hub and then return once they've made their deliveries, but in cases of natural disasters or humanitarian missions, the logistics aren't always that simple. Deliveries can be intercepted or the vehicles damaged in the process. The solution for safe deliveries during times of conflict or emergencies is a stealth system, which is why DARPA put out a call for disappearing unmanned systems and San Francisco-based Otherlab responded. Otherlab came up with an idea for a drone called APSARA that could make one-way emergency relief trips and degrade quickly once it reached its target. The body of the small drones are made from a cellulose-based material that's a lot like cardboard and filled with fungal spores to help it to biodegrade faster. The body itself looks like a stealth fighter jet in miniature. "DARPA was interested specifically in something that could degrade fairly quickly so when you deliver your supplies with a hundred of these, you don't have drones littering the ground for the next 20 years," said Mikell Taylor of Otherlab. The inside of the prototype drone contains off-the-shelf electronics that allow it to be remotely controlled. If these drones were used in a real-world application, the electronics would also be degradable -- DARPA has a separate program developing electronics that dissolve on impact. The drones are designed to land within a 33-foot radius of programmed GPS coordinates after being dropped from an aircraft tens of thousands of feet in the air though for testing they have been limited to using octocopters to lift the drones high off the ground. Depending on the mission, the body of the drone could be covered in water resistant coating to protect it from rain or floods or made from more durable materials if necessary. You can watch the prototype in action below.