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Main article: DARPA

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LiDAR autonomous sensor startup Ouster announces $27M Series A led by auto powerhouse Cox Enterprises

20:00 | 11 December

Angus Pacala has had a lifelong passion for autonomous cars going all the way back to high school. A little more than a decade ago, he followed the launch of the DARPA Grand Challenge, a Department of Defense competition that pitted research teams against each other over who could build the best autonomous car. Stanford won the challenge in 2005, which is “one of the reasons I went there,” Pacala said.

His freshman year, he met Mark Frichtl, who was similarly interested in autonomous cars. The two took classes and worked on problem sets together, eventually working with each other at Quanergy, which Pacala had co-founded. Now, they are putting their collective talents together in a new venture called Ouster to bring affordable LiDAR sensors to the world.

Ouster today announced a $27 million series A fundraise led by Cox Enterprises, whose Cox Automotive division owns and offers a variety of auto services including the well-known Kelley Blue Book and AutoTrader.com.

Few areas of research are as important to the viability of fully autonomous cars as sensors — the actual physical hardware which evaluates the space around a vehicle and provides the raw data for machine learning algorithms to control the car without a human driver.

While visible light cameras, radar, and infrared sensors have been used by various engineering teams to build a physical map around a vehicle, the key component for nearly all autonomous car platforms is LiDAR. As Devin described on TechCrunch in an overview earlier this year, the technology, which has been around for decades, has become one of the key linchpins to successfully building L4 and L5 fully-autonomous vehicles.

There is just one challenge: essentially only one company makes the technology for production scale — Velodyne, which is based in the Valley. The company announced just a few weeks ago that it is quadrupling production of its main LiDAR product due to demand from autonomous car manufacturers. However, the prices for many of its sensors remain out-of-reach for most consumer applications, with some of the company’s most advanced sensors costing tens of thousands of dollars.

For Pacala, that price barrier has been a major challenge and ultimately gets at the mission of Ouster. “Our long term vision is to push LiDAR from being a research product to being in every consumer automobile,“ he said.

Ouster hopes that its first product, a 64-channel LiDAR sensor called OS1, which will be priced at $12,000, is that solution. The company says that the product is dramatically lighter, smaller, and uses less power than other competitors. It’s also shipping now.

Improving the performance of the sensor while also lowering its sticker price wasn’t a simple challenge. Pacala emphasized that technology wasn’t the entire solution. “While we can talk about the nitty-gritty of technology, the other side is not just the fundamental technology, but the design for manufacturability that really makes this lower cost while maintaining the performance” of the sensor.

That’s one of the reasons why he chose the venture partners that he did. “This isn’t just a typical list of Sand Hill investors. There is a time and place for those sort of investors, but we saw an opportunity to expand our reach by having investors who are much more attuned to the auto industry,” Pacala said. “VCs that are located in Detroit and who talk to OEMs day in and day out” had more to offer the company at this stage.

Ouster is setting an aggressive timeline to scale out its manufacturing. It intends to ramp us production heavily in the new year, targeting a thousand units a month in January and getting to ten thousand units a month by the end of June.

Certainly speed is of the essence. Venture capitalists around the world have been heavily funding automotive sensing technology over the past two years, including large rounds into Valley-based Luminar, Israel-based Oryx Vision, and China-based Hesai. But Pacala is sanguine about the company’s chances. “We have delivered first and then talked second, which is why you haven’t heard anything about us until now.” He hopes the heavy emphasis on getting manufacturing right early on will give him a lead in the race for your automobile.

In addition to Cox Enterprises, Fontinalis, Amity Ventures, Constellation Technology Ventures, Tao Capital Partners, and Carthona Capital also participated in the fundraise.

Featured Image: Ouster



This tiny sensor could sleep for years between detection events

04:48 | 12 September

It’s easy enough to put an always-on camera somewhere it can live off solar power or the grid, but deep in nature, underground, or in other unusual circumstances every drop of power is precious. Luckily, a new type of sensor developed for DARPA uses none at all until the thing it’s built to detect happens to show up. That means it can sit for years without so much as a battery top-up.

The idea is that you could put a few of these things in, say, the miles of tunnels underneath a decommissioned nuclear power plant or a mining complex, but not have to wire them all for electricity. But as soon as something appears, it’s seen and transmitted immediately. The power requirements would have to be almost nil, of course, which is why DARPA called the program Near Zero Power RF and Sensor Operation.

A difficult proposition, but engineers at Northeastern University were up to the task. They call their work a “plasmonically-enhanced micromechanical photoswitch,” which pretty much sums it up. I could end the article right here. But for those of you who slept in class the day we covered that topic, I guess I can explain.

The sensor is built to detect infrared light waves, invisible to our eyes but still abundant from heat sources like people, cars, fires, and so on. But as long as none are present, it is completely powered off.

But when a ray does appear, it strikes a surface is covered in tiny patches that magnify its effect. Plasmons are a sort of special behavior of conducting material, which in this case respond to the IR waves by heating up.

Here you can see the actual gap that gets closed by the heating of the element (lower left).

“The energy from the IR source heats the sensing elements which, in turn, causes physical movement of key sensor components,” wrote DARPA’s program manager, Troy Olsson, in a blog post. “These motions result in the mechanical closing of otherwise open circuit elements, thereby leading to signals that the target IR signature has been detected.”

Think of it like a paddle in a well. It can sit there for years without doing a thing, but as soon as someone drops a pebble into the well, it hits the paddle, which spins and turns a crank, which pulls a string, which raises a flag at the well-owner’s house. Except, as Olsson further explains, it’s a little more sophisticated.

“The technology features multiple sensing elements—each tuned to absorb a specific IR wavelength,” he wrote. “Together, these combine into complex logic circuits capable of analyzing IR spectrums, which opens the way for these sensors to not only detect IR energy in the environment but to specify if that energy derives from a fire, vehicle, person or some other IR source.”

The “unlimited duration of operation for unattended sensors deployed to detect infrequent but time-critical events,” as the researchers describe it, could have plenty of applications beyond security, of course: imagine popping a few of these all over the forests to monitor the movements of herds, or in space to catch rare cosmic events.

The tech is described in a paper published today in Nature Nanotechnology.

Featured Image: DARPA / Northeastern University



DARPA project aims to make modular computers out of ‘chiplets’

17:35 | 26 August

The Defense Department’s research arm has officially kicked off its effort to create a modular computing framework, with pieces pulled from a mix-‘n-match set of “chiplets.” Producing something this weird will take a village, the agency suggested — in fact, “an enormous village rife with innovators.” DARPA did always have a way with words.

The program, first announced last year, is called Common Heterogeneous Integration and Intellectual Property Reuse Strategies, which they abbreviate to CHIPS. It’s been reaching out to universities, military-industrial contractors, and of course the semiconductor and chip biz to explore the possibility, and this week was the “proposers’ day,” when the agency and interested parties share details and expectations.

Basically the idea is to reduce certain functions to standard chiplet size and form factor, within reason, and create a system by which those chiplets can be organized into larger boards. Need a board that’s heavy on image processing and storage for a satellite or recon drone? Put a bunch of those pieces together. Want something more focused on low-latency signal processing and integrating input from multiple sensors? Forget the image stuff and snap in some other parts.

A slide deck presented at the event this week (PDF) has lots more details, though since the project is still in early stages it’s all still pretty speculative.

It’s unclear what size or form the chiplets would take — that’s up to the creators, the innovators in that enormous village, to decide. It could be macro-level swapping in, like popping in extra RAM or a PCI card. Or it could be baked in at the manufacturing level but still more flexible than existing custom chip systems.

Ideally, though, the resulting electronics would be smaller, more versatile, and cheaper to make and replace than current solutions — which wouldn’t be hard in some cases, with some military systems dating decades into the past.

DARPA was keen to emphasize that it doesn’t want anything remade from scratch, merely retooling things to create a more flexible infrastructure. The old paradigm of the do-it-all PC isn’t the best any more in many cases. That may, however, mean establishing new interfaces or standards.

“By bringing the best design capabilities, reconfigurable circuit fabrics, and accelerators from the commercial domain, we should be able to create defense systems just by adding smaller specialized chiplets,” summarized DARPA’s Bill Chappell, in the announcement post.

Dan Green, the program manager, had more winged words to utter for CHIPS:

“Now we are moving beyond pretty pictures and mere words, and we are rolling up our sleeves to do the hard work it will take to change the way we think about, design, and build our microelectronic systems.”

Featured Image: DARPA



DARPA awards $65 million to develop the perfect, tiny two-way brain-computer interface

02:31 | 11 July

With $65 million in new funding, DARPA seeks to develop neural implants that make it possible for the human brain to speak directly to computer interfaces. As part of its Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, the agency will fund five academic research groups and one small San Jose-based company to further its goals.

For a taste of what DARPA is interested in, the Brown team will work on creating an interface that would weave together a vast network of “neurograins” that could be worn as implants on top of or in the cerebral cortex. These sensors would be capable of real-time electrical communication with the goal of understanding how the brain processes and decodes spoken language — a brain process so complex and automatic that aspects of it still elude researchers.

Among the six recipients, four are interested in visual perception, with the remaining two examining auditory perception and speech. MIT Technology Review reports that Paradromics, the only company included in the funding news, will receive around $18 million. Similar to the Brown team, Paradromics will use the funding to develop a prosthetic capable of decoding and interpreting speech.

The recipients have a lofty list of goals to aspire to. Foremost is DARPA’s desire to develop “high resolution” neural implants that record signals from as many as one million neurons at once. On top of that, it requests that the device be capable of two-way communication — receiving signals as well as transmitting them back out. And it wants that capability in a package no larger than two nickels stacked on top of one another.

“By increasing the capacity of advanced neural interfaces to engage more than one million neurons in parallel, NESD aims to enable rich two-way communication with the brain at a scale that will help deepen our understanding of that organ’s underlying biology, complexity, and function,” founding NESD Program Manager Phillip Alvelda said in the announcement.

The full list of NESD grant recipients:

  • Paradromics, Inc. (Dr. Matthew Angle)
  • Brown University (Dr. Arto Nurmikko)
  • Columbia University (Dr. Ken Shepard)
  • Fondation Voir et Entendre (Dr. Jose-Alain Sahel and Dr. Serge Picaud)
  • John B. Pierce Laboratory (Dr. Vincent Pieribone)
  • University of California, Berkeley (Dr. Ehud Isacoff)

Over the course of the four-year program, the research teams will coordinate with the FDA on the long-term safety implications of installing DARPA’s dream implant in and on the human brain.

When cracked, the technology, most often called a brain-computer interface (BCI), will break open a world of possibilities. From rehabilitation from traumatic brain injuries to typing a WhatsApp message using just your thoughts, BCIs have the potential to revolutionize every aspect of modern technology. But even as the money flows in, the challenges of developing this kind of tech remain myriad: How will the hardware be small and noninvasive enough to be worn in everyday life? Considering the privacy nightmare of creating a direct link to the human brain, how will we secure them?

Crafting a viable brain-computer interface is a challenge that weaves together some of tech’s trickiest software problems with its most intractable hardware ones. And while DARPA certainly isn’t the only deep-pocketed entity interested in building the bridge to the near future of bi-directional brain implants, with its defense budget and academic connections, it’s definitely the bionic horse we’d bet on.


Featured Image: majcot/Shutterstock



Boeing will build DARPA’s XS-1 experimental spaceplane

22:00 | 24 May

You can hear the champagne corks popping here in Seattle as Boeing is awarded the contract to make DARPA’s cool experimental spaceplane. The company was competing with Northrup Grumman and Masten Space Systems to design the craft.

The XS-1, as it’s called, would allow for relatively cheap and simple trips to space for launching and testing satellites and all that sort of thing. The goal is to get costs down to as little as $5 million per launch all told, and be able to fly at least ten times a year.

It’s meant to be a fusion of all the high-tech stuff from NASA, the Air Force, and private sector aerospace, like lightweight cryogenic propellant tanks and super strong and durable composite wings that can handle re-entry temperatures. It should be able to go at speeds up to Mach 10, and deliver payloads weighing up to 3,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit.

As is the usual case for these multi-million-dollar super high-tech programs, there’s a demonstration video that looks like it was put together by a middle-schooler in 2005:

“We’re very pleased with Boeing’s progress on the XS-1 through Phase 1 of the program and look forward to continuing our close collaboration in this newly funded progression to Phases 2 and 3—fabrication and flight,” said DARPA program manager Jess Sponable in a news release.

This second phase of the design process goes through 2019, during which time the design will be finalized and the propulsion system (a modified Space Shuttle engine) tested thoroughly. After that, a dozen flight tests are scheduled for 2020. The final trial will be to fly 10 times over 10 days going at least Mach 5.

You can follow the project’s updates and view more details on the testing and capabilities over at DARPA’s website.



DARPA shows off its SideArm system catching drones mid-flight

22:16 | 6 February

Military-style fixed-wing drones are easy to launch, but difficult to land; DARPA aims to change that with SideArm, a portable drone-grabbing system that snatches the fast-moving craft right out of the air.

The basic concept, as suggested when SideArm was first proposed, is sort of a reversal of the classic aircraft carrier hook system.

The SideArm unit, which fits in a shipping container and can be set up and operated by 2-4 people, first launches the drone off a horizontally mounted rail catapult. When the drone is ready to land, the operators attach the grabber (no official name is mentioned) to the rail and the drone flies in directly under it.

A hook protruding from the back of the drone snags on a line, which both slows the craft down and causes it to swing up into a waiting net, where nose barbs keep it in place.

You can see the lab tests and concept renders in this video:

“SideArm aims to replicate carriers’ capability to quickly and safely accelerate and decelerate planes through a portable, low-cost kit that is mission-flexible, independent from local infrastructure, and compatible with existing and future tactical unmanned aircraft,” said DARPA’s Graham Drozeski in a press release.

The system is part of the Tern project, a joint venture between DARPA and the Navy aimed at making unmanned aircraft systems that don’t require costly and irreversible modifications to ships.

Featured Image: DARPA



The new A-Team: Agile teams of machines

21:00 | 29 January

One of the most popular shows on television 30 years ago was “The A-Team” — the story of five rogue military commandos who teamed together to form an elite fighting unit. Now, a generation later, DARPA and the U.S. military are in search of a new “A-Team” — only this team won’t be comprised of just humans, it will include a few machines, as well.

A-team refers to “agile team,” which DARPA refers to as hybrid teams of humans teamed with intelligent machines. What DARPA recognizes is that intelligent machines are not just “agents” carrying out the simple commands of humans, but rather are part of an “intelligent fabric” that dynamically evolves over time.

The obvious use case for these A-teams, of course, is in the military sphere. Imagine a U.S. military operation. There will be a fighting team comprised of battlefield commanders and soldiers, of course. But there will also be autonomous fighting units, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). The UAVs might be providing aerial cover for an assault on a terrorist outpost, while the UGVs might be working to defuse bombs along the way.

What the military is looking for is some mathematical method for designing these agile teams of humans and machines. There are some things that humans are good at — such as autonomy and creating trust with other fighting team members — and there are some things that machines are good at (analysis of large sets of data). But here’s the twist — there are some attributes that will dynamically evolve over time, thanks to the coordination and communication of the team, or the ability to distribute intelligence. What’s needed is some way of optimizing this man-machine interaction to provide the desired results.

There are many more use cases for these hybrid teams of humans and intelligent machines. These A-teams can be used to create improved logistical networks (e.g. imagine Amazon delivery drones learning on-the-fly and helping to improve the operations of Amazon warehouses), design complex software, discover new drugs or design new space probes.

As machines show the potential to “learn” over time, it will change the way people interact with them. Take the example of controlling and managing an air battle. Instead of UAVs (drones) being piloted from a distance, they will be truly autonomous fighting units, capable of making their own decisions without human operators. But they will have to coordinate these decisions with other members of the air strike force. Thus, a team of pilots sent into battle might learn how to coordinate their actions with swarms of UAVs. Those UAVs might be used to gather intelligence about the relative strength of an opponent, or they might be used as trusted members of the same combat team.

In many ways, the creation and development of these agile teams will come down to a matter of trust. Just as members of a tight-knit military team learn to trust each other on the battlefield and know that no members will be left behind in a confrontation with the enemy, they must also learn to trust the intelligent machines that will be flying or marching next to them into the next battle.

Featured Image: Stacy L. Pearsall/Aurora/Getty Images



DARPA establishes group to standardize robotic space repairs

23:12 | 29 November

If we’re to keep thousands of expensive satellites in working order, the job isn’t going to be done by humans — and DARPA suggests we all get on the same page before we start designing robotic systems to pick up the slack.

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The reality of satellite design is that if pretty much anything goes wrong, the thing sits in orbit like a million-dollar paperweight (although absent gravity it is technically a papermass) and eventually burns up on reentry. After all, there’s usually no one out there to fix it except the folks on the ISS, and they’ve got better things to do.

Robotic platforms are the obvious solution: they can get in range and tighten screws or knock an antenna into alignment… but only if the satellites in question are using the right kind of screw. DARPA wants to get everyone together to talk about getting these standards in order.

“We’re inviting the space community to join us in creating a permanent, self-sustaining ‘one-stop shop’ where industry can collaborate and engage with the U.S. Government about on-orbit servicing, as well as drive the creation of the standards that future servicing providers will follow,” said DARPA’s Todd Master in a press release.

An exciting graphic showing the flow of information through CONFERS.

The group would be called the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations, or CONFERS, and its decisions would be purely advisory and non-binding. The idea is it would be a clearinghouse for discussion and technical information, not any kind of authority.

People build things with 2x4s and use right-handed screw threads because they’re cheap, widely available, and generally good enough. Standards like that (a bit more thorough, of course) could keep costs down for future space platforms that want to allow for the possibility of mid-mission servicing.

Got some ideas? Head over to Arlington on December 16 for the agency’s proposal day — all citizens are welcome, but you’ll need to go through the usual security procedures detailed in the invitation.



DARPA’s robo-boat tests parasailing radar

22:11 | 24 October

DARPA’s submarine-hunting robot boat plies the seas off the coast of California. Smooth, grey, and purposeful, truly this vessel resembles other predators of the aquatic world in more than mien. But it turns out it’s also a sweet parasailing platform.

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The Defense Department’s R&D wing just concluded a set of tests proving the concept of TALONS, or Towed Airborne Lift of Naval Systems. Basically the problem is that even on the largest ships, the highest point is likely no more than 150 or 200 feet above the water line. That’s all well and good if you’re spotting whales, but when artillery and missile strike distances are measured in miles, you want a bit more range.

TALONS takes the instruments that would normally be mounted atop the superstructure and gives them a tow line and parachute. It’s effectively parasailing. That puts the radar and other units up to 1,500 feet up, giving it five or six times the range.

The concept was shown off last year, but these tests were the last DARPA was to do before handing off the tech to the Navy — so why not do it in style? On a robo-boat?

“We just started at-sea testing of ACTUV in June, and until now we’ve been focused on getting the basic ship systems to work,” said the program’s manager, Scott Littlefield, in a DARPA news release. “TALONS was our first chance to demonstrate hosting a real payload and showing the versatility of ACTUV to do a wide variety of missions for which it wasn’t originally designed.”

A fleet of drone ships would not only be a nice deterrent against submarines, but a great testing platform as well. While at sea for a month or two, the ships basically take care of themselves, allowing a minimal crew to conduct experiments, perhaps even rent out space to research institutions.

Work on TALONS will be continued by the Navy, but ACTUV (Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (yes, the acronym has an acronym in it)) will stay under the auspices of DARPA.

Featured Image: DARPA



Capitalizing on foundations of innovation

04:00 | 1 July

Lenny Grover Crunch Network Contributor

Lenny Grover is the founder and CEO of Screener.co.

How to join the network

Two of the most important technological advances that helped fueled much of the country’s record economic growth in the post-WW II era were ubiquitous computing devices and modern communications technologies.

Indeed, most of the companies covered on TechCrunch certainly would not exist if not for the development and commercialization of microprocessors and the internet.

In my opinion, insufficient attention in the current ideological debate taking place in Silicon Valley and around the country has been given to the important role that government played throughout the lifecycle of these technologies. Understanding how these relatively mature technologies and industries were initially spawned and encouraged is critical to developing a strategy to empower the next generation of entrepreneurs in capital- or R&D-intensive industries with high growth potential.

ENIAC was the first “programmable, general purpose, electronic digital computer,” and is widely regarded as the first modern general-purpose computing device. Its construction was financed by the U.S. Army beginning in 1943; the project was completed in 1946 at a total cost of $400,000.

Only after the government’s investment in the research and development of the first ENIAC did similar vacuum tube-based computers find their way into industry. These machines were enormous, however, and the microelectronics we take for granted today would not have been possible without subsequent innovations.

The modern integrated circuit (IC) was developed by Jack Kilby while at Texas Instruments. He was working on a project sponsored by the U.S. Army Signal Corps to develop a way to use smaller transistors as a replacement for the bulky vacuum tubes; he developed the integrated circuit as an alternative approach. However, the cost of Texas Instruments’ early integrated circuits were high; a single IC cost $450 in 1960. As a result, industry reacted coolly to the introduction and it was the military that was the technology’s early adopter.

After reading the paragraphs above, it may seem less surprising that the first computer processors based on ICs were developed for NASA’s Apollo Guidance Computer, and many of the basic protocols and technologies at the foundation of the modern internet were invented by researchers working for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

As Isaac Newton wrote, “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” In the case of the tech industry, it is not only past innovations, but the cumulative investment in developing and commercializing those innovations that provide both inspiration and a platform for future innovation.

The smartphone owes its existence to the early research on ENIAC, the IC and the microprocessor. Some tech entrepreneurs may have a visceral reaction to Elizabeth Warren’s assertion that “you didn’t build that alone,” but the tech industry owes an enormous debt to the government for its early sponsorship of the predecessor and enabling technologies that make the modern high-tech economy possible.

We can either come together to reinvest … or we can take profits and fall behind.

The innovations that are likely to be responsible for substantial economic growth for the next century include enabling technologies for clean, efficient energy production and personalized medicine. In fact, government investment in basic research, such as its expenditure of $2.7 billion 1991 dollars over the more than decade-long Human Genome Project, and commercial subsidies, such as federal and state renewable energy tax credits, have already played a critical role in kick-starting these industries.

While some argue that we can cut our way to long-term growth by lowering taxes, it is worth noting that between 1943 and 1980, when most of the innovations described above were developed, marginal federal income tax rates on the highest earners were among the highest in our country’s history.

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It is also worth noting that government investment in research and development, and renewable energy tax credits, are “subsidies” that have allegedly been the target of well-funded and well-organized opposition by fossil fuel interests who masquerade as Libertarians (the Koch Brothers). Other countries are not hamstrung by ideological opposition to clean energy investment. In fact, China, not the U.S., is the world’s largest investor in renewable energy.

The stakes could not be higher; nothing short of America’s long-term economic competitiveness is at stake. In my opinion, the choice is clear: We can either come together to reinvest in growth and maintain our leadership in an increasingly competitive global economy — or we can take profits and fall behind.

Featured Image: BrAt82/Shutterstock


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