This sensor stops your quadcopter before it can cut you

The folks at Spectrum have found a truly cool project for quadcopter pilots. It’s a spinning sensor that will stop the rotors if your finger gets too close to the blades, thereby preventing you – or your kids – from getting cut.

Researchers at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia created so-called Safety Rotor to help prevent accidents with more powerful quadrotor drones. The system constantly senses for a “finger” – in this case a hot dog – and then slams the rotor to a stop within 0.077 seconds. A cage around the propellers spins more slowly than the propellers and is constantly on the lookout for biological material approaching the blades.

The measured latency [of the Safety Rotor’s braking response] was 0.0118 seconds from the triggering event to start of rotor deceleration. The rotor required a further 0.0474 s to come to a complete stop. Ninety percent of the rotational kinetic energy of the rotor (as computed from angular velocity) was dissipated within 0.0216 s of triggering, and 99 percent of the rotational kinetic energy of the rotor was dissipated within 0.032 s.

The safety functionality of the safety system was tested on the bench using a processed meat “finger” proxy to trigger the hoop, and also applied to an open rotor (without hoop) for comparison. The rotor was spun at hover speed (1100 rads−1) and the finger proxy was introduced into the hoop at 0.36 ms−1 … The rotor and finger motion were captured using a shutter speed of 480 Hz. The rotor came to a stop within 0.077 s, with only light marks on the finger proxy from the impact of the hoop. The rotor was completely stopped by the time the finger reached the rotor plane. In contrast, the tip of the finger proxy introduced to an open rotor was completely destroyed.

The kit adds $20 and about 22 grams to the drone so it’s not particularly expensive or difficult to implement. It could be, as they note, a real lifesaver if you tend to put your juicy, blood-filled digits into copter blades.

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Snips announces an ICO and its own voice assistant device

French startup Snips has been working on voice assistant technology that respects your privacy. And the company is going to use its own voice assistant for a set of consumer devices. As part of this consumer push, the company is also announcing an initial coin offering.

Yes, it sounds a bit like Snips is playing a game of buzzword bingo. Anyone can currently download the open source Snips SDK and play with it with a Raspberry Pi, a microphone and a speaker. It’s private by design, you can even make it work without any internet connection. Companies can partner with Snips to embed a voice assistant in their own devices too.

But Snips is adding a B2C element to its business. This time, the company is going to compete directly with Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers. You’ll be able to buy the Snips AIR Base and Snips AIR Satellites.

The base will be a good old smart speaker, while satellites will be tiny portable speakers that you can put in all your rooms. The company plans to launch those devices in 18 months.

By default, Snips devices will come with basic skills to control your smart home devices, get the weather, control music, timers, alarms, calendars and reminders. Unlike the Amazon Echo or Google Home, voice commands won’t be sent to Google’s or Amazon’s servers.

Developers will be able to create skills and publish them on a marketplace. That marketplace will run on a new blockchain — the AIR blockchain.

And that’s where the ICO comes along. The marketplace will accept AIR tokens to buy more skills. You’ll also be able to generate training data for voice commands using AIR tokens. To be honest, I’m not sure why good old credit card transactions weren’t enough. But I guess that’s a good way to raise money.

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Jury finds Samsung owes Apple $539M in patent case stretching back to 2011

A patent case that began back in 2011 has reached a conclusion, with Samsung ordered to pay about $539 million to Apple over infringements of the latter’s patents in devices that are now long gone. The case has dragged on for years as both sides argued about the finer points of how much was owed per device, what could be deducted and so on. It’s been eye-wateringly boring, but at least it’s over now. Maybe.

The patents in question are some things we take for granted now, UI cues like “rubber-banding” at the bottom of a list or using two fingers to zoom in and out. But they were all part of the “boy have we patented it” multi-touch gestures of which Steve Jobs was so proud. In addition there were the defining characteristics of the first iPhone, now familiar (black round rectangle with a big screen, etc.). At any rate, Apple sued the dickens out of Samsung over them.

The case was actually decided long ago — in 2012, when the court found that Samsung had clearly and willfully infringed on the patents in question and initial damages were set at a staggering $1 billion. We wrote it up then, when it was of course big news:

Since then it’s all been about the damages, and Samsung won a big victory in the Supreme court that said it may only have to pay out based on the profit from the infringing component, which could limit damages considerably. (Update: The decision did not say, as I originally had here, that Samsung only had to pay based on the infringing component, but that a single component could be considered the basis for calculating profits.)

Unfortunately for Samsung, the “infringing component” for the design patents seems to have been considered by the jury as being the entire phone. The result is that a great deal of Samsung’s profits from selling the infringing devices ended up composing the damages. It sets a major precedent in the patent litigation world, although not necessarily a logical one. People started arguing about the validity and value of design patents a long time ago and they haven’t stopped yet.

CNET has a good rundown for anyone curious about the specifics. Notably, Samsung said in a statement that “We will consider all options to obtain an outcome that does not hinder creativity and fair competition for all companies and consumers.” Does that mean they’re going to take it as high as the Supreme Court (again) and drag the case out for another couple of years? Or will they cut their losses and just be happy to stop paying the legal fees that probably rivaled the damages assigned? Hopefully the latter.

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The 9 features Amazon and Google must add to the Echo and Home

The Amazon Echo and Google Home are amazing devices and both have advantages over the other. In my home, we use the Amazon Echo and have them around the house and outside. I have the original in the living room, a Dot in bedrooms, my office and outside, a Tap in my woodworking workshop and Spots in the kids’ room (with tape over the camera). They’re great devices, but far from perfect. They’re missing several key features and the Google Home is missing the same things, too.

I polled the TechCrunch staff. The following are the features we would like to see in the next generation of these devices.

If you’re on desktop, click the “start here” button to the right. If you’re on mobile web, just scroll down. If you are reading this from anywhere else (Google News, Yahoo, etc), click here to jump into the slideshow.

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Netflix magic market number larger than big cable company’s magic market number

Netflix’s market cap is now larger than Comcast, which is pretty much just a symbolic thing given that the companies are valued very differently but is like one of those moments where Apple was larger than Exxon and may be some kind of watershed moment for technology. Or not.

A couple notes on this largely symbolic and not really important thing:

  • Netflix users are going up. That’s a number that people look at. It’s why Netflix’s magic market number is going up.
  • People are cutting cable TV cords. Netflix has no cable TV cords. It does, however, require a cord connected to the internet. So it still needs a cord of some sort, unless everything goes wireless.
  • Netflix is spending a lot of money on content. People consume content. Cable is also content, but it is expensive content. Also, Comcast will start bundling in Netflix into its cable subscriptions.
  • They have a very different price-to-earnings ratio. Comcast is valued as a real company. Netflix is valued as a… well, something that is growing that will maybe be a business more massive than Comcast. Maybe.
  • Comcast makes much more money than Netflix. Netflix had $3.7 billion in revenue in Q1. Comcast had $22.8 billion and free cash flow of $3.1 billion. Netflix says it will have -$3 billion to -$4 billion in free cash flow in 2018.

Anyway, Netflix will report its next earnings in a couple months, and this number is definitely going to change, because it’s pretty arbitrary given that Netflix is not valued like other companies. The stock price doesn’t swing as much as Bitcoin, but things can be pretty random.

In the mean time, Riverdale Season 2 is on Netflix, so maybe that’s why it’s more valuable than Comcast . See you guys in a few hours.

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This family’s Echo sent a private conversation to a random contact

A Portland family tells KIRO news that their Echo recorded and then sent a private conversation to someone on its list of contacts without telling them. Amazon called it an “extremely rare occurrence.” (And provided a more detailed explanation, below.)

Portlander Danielle said that she got a call from one of her husband’s employees one day telling her to “unplug your Alexa devices right now,” and suggesting she’d been hacked. He said that he had received recordings of the couple talking about hardwood floors, which Danielle confirmed.

Amazon, when she eventually got hold of the company, had an engineer check the logs, and he apparently discovered what they said was true. In a statement, Amazon said, “We investigated what happened and determined this was an extremely rare occurrence. We are taking steps to avoid this from happening in the future.”

What could have happened? It seems likely that the Echo’s voice recognition service misheard something, interpreting it as instructions to record the conversation like a note or message. And then it apparently also misheard them say to send the recording to this particular person. And it did all this without saying anything back.

The house reportedly had multiple Alexa devices, so it’s also possible that the system decided to ask for confirmation on the wrong device — saying “All right, I’ve sent that to Steve” on the living room Echo because the users’ voices carried from the kitchen. Or something.

Naturally no one expects to have their conversations sent out to an acquaintance, but it must also be admitted that the Echo is, fundamentally, a device that listens to every conversation you have and constantly sends that data to places on the internet. It also remembers more stuff now. If something does go wrong, “sending your conversation somewhere it isn’t supposed to go” seems a pretty reasonable way for it to happen.

Update: I asked Amazon for more details on what happened, and after this article was published it issued the following explanation, which more or less confirms how I suspected this went down:

Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like “Alexa.” Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a “send message” request. At which point, Alexa said out loud “To whom?” At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customers contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, “[contact name], right?” Alexa then interpreted background conversation as “right”. As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.

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Uber in fatal crash detected pedestrian but had emergency braking disabled

The initial report by the National Transportation Safety Board on the fatal self-driving Uber crash in March confirms that the car detected the pedestrian as early as 6 seconds before the crash, but did not slow or stop because its emergency braking systems were deliberately disabled.

Uber told the NTSB that “emergency braking maneuvers are not enabled while the vehicle is under computer control, to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior,” in other words, to ensure a smooth ride. “The vehicle operator is relied on to intervene and take action. The system is not designed to alert the operator.” It’s not clear why the emergency braking capability even exists if it is disabled while the car is in operation. The Volvo model’s built-in safety systems — collision avoidance and emergency braking, among other things — are also disabled while in autonomous mode.

It appears that in an emergency situation like this this “self-driving car” is no better, or substantially worse, than many normal cars already on the road.

It’s hard to understand the logic of this decision. An emergency is exactly the situation when the self-driving car, and not the driver, should be taking action. Its long-range sensors can detect problems accurately from much farther away, while its 360-degree awareness and route planning allow it to make safe maneuvers that a human would not be able to do in time. Humans, even when their full attention is on the road, are not the best at catching these things; relying only on them in the most dire circumstances that require quick response times and precise maneuvering seems an incomprehensible and deeply irresponsible decision.

According to the NTSB report, the vehicle first registered Elaine Herzberg on lidar six seconds before the crash — at the speed it was traveling, that puts first contact at about 378 feet away. She was first identified as an unknown object, then a vehicle, then a bicycle, over the next few seconds (it isn’t stated when these classifications took place exactly).

The car following the collision

During these six seconds, the driver could and should have been alerted of an anomalous object ahead on the left — whether it was a deer, a car or a bike, it was entering or could enter the road and should be attended to. But the system did not warn the driver and apparently had no way to.

Then, 1.3 seconds before impact, which is to say about 80 feet away, the Uber system decided that an emergency braking procedure would be necessary to avoid Herzberg. But it did not hit the brakes, as the emergency braking system had been disabled, nor did it warn the driver because, again, it couldn’t.

It was only when, less than a second before impact, the driver happened to look up from whatever it was she was doing and saw Herzberg, whom the car had known about in some way for five long seconds by then. It struck and killed her.

It reflects extremely poorly on Uber that it had disabled the car’s ability to respond in an emergency — though it was authorized to speed at night — and no method for the system to alert the driver should it detect something important. This isn’t just a safety issue, like going on the road with a sub-par lidar system or without checking the headlights — it’s a failure of judgement by Uber, and one that cost a person’s life.

Arizona, where the crash took place, barred Uber from further autonomous testing, and Uber yesterday ended its program in the state.

Uber offered the following statement on the report:

Over the course of the last two months, we’ve worked closely with the NTSB. As their investigation continues, we’ve initiated our own safety review of our self-driving vehicles program. We’ve also brought on former NTSB Chair Christopher Hart to advise us on our overall safety culture, and we look forward to sharing more on the changes we’ll make in the coming weeks.

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Trek’s Commuter+ 7 is a beautiful – if pricey – electric bike

At $3,700, Trek’s Commuter+ 7 is a hard sell in a world of commodity e-bikes. But, thankfully, Trek has added superior components, great styling, and surprising durability to the package, making this pedal-assist ebike one of the best I’ve ridden.

The bike has a matte black finish, fenders, and a motor guard to keep your ebike safe from passing rocks and trash. The 250-watt Bosch Performance CX runs at a maximum of 20 miles per hour and the removable battery lets you swap out packs if things run low.

I enjoyed the ride on this thing and, although it could be prohibitively expensive, you do get some solid components on a well-tested brand. Give it a ride like I did and see for yourself.

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Klevio launches its smart intercom and app that lets you open doors remotely

Klevio, a smart home startup out of the U.K., is officially launching its first product: a smart intercom system that lets you control your front door lock remotely via an iOS and Android app on your phone.

Dubbed “Klevio One,” the device is designed to be retrofitted to existing electric strike-enabled locks, and also interfaces with intercom systems found on the communal doors of apartment blocks. This, say its makers, means that it is better suited to flats than smart locks already on the market.

In a call with Klevio co-founder and CEO Aleš Špetič, he explained that the approach the London-based company has taken is different to smart locks that typically use a motor to turn the lock and require tearing out and replacing your existing lock. In contrast, if you already have an electric strike as part of your lock — which a lot of apartments do — the Klevio One can simply be wired to interface with it. If you don’t, a Klevio installer can fit one to your existing lock for you.

This major upside of this approach is that Klevio isn’t re-inventing the whole wheel, but taking years old, tried and tested electric strike technology, and simply adding smart connectivity to it.

It means the Klevio One works with multiple doors and there’s no need to modify the communal area of apartment buildings when installing it, since the device is located within an individual apartment. You can also still use your old physical keys as a backup, and the company says the use of Klevio won’t be obvious to anyone outside the building.

And as you’d expect, the Klevio system is cloud-connected so that you can control your lock remotely, and issue virtual and one-time use keys. It comes in a WiFi only version, and a subscription version with added 4G.

The startup’s back story is noteworthy, too. The Klevio’s original concept and eureka moment came at Onefinestay, the ‘upscale Airbnb’ acquired by Accor in 2016. After the exit, Onefinestay co-founder Demetrios Zoppos teamed up with CubeSensors’ Aleš Špetič and Marko Mrdjenovič to start the new company, including purchasing the needed patents from Onefinestay.

In addition, Onefinestay co-founder Greg Marsh is an investor in Klevio, alongside LocalGlobe’s partner Robin Klein (who I’m told has invested in a personal capacity). To date Klevio has raised £1.2 million in funding.

Meanwhile, Špetič tells me that prior to today’s wider launch — where it can be ordered via the Klevio website — the Klevio One has been piloted with 1,000 users across London.

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Ring’s Jamie Siminoff and Clinc’s Jason Mars to join us at Disrupt SF

Disrupt SF is set to be the biggest tech conference that TechCrunch has ever hosted. So it only makes sense that we plan an agenda fit for the occasion.

That’s why we’re absolutely thrilled to announce that Ring’s Jamie Siminoff will join us on stage for a fireside chat and Jason Mars from Clinc will be demo-ing first-of-its-kind technology on the Disrupt SF stage.

Jamie Siminoff – Ring

Earlier this year, Ring became Amazon’s second largest acquisition ever, selling to the behemoth for a reported $1 billion.

But the story begins long ago, with Jamie Siminoff building a WiFi-connected video doorbell in his garage in 2011. Back then it was called DoorBot. Now, it’s called Ring, and it’s an essential piece of the overall evolution of e-commerce.

As giants like Amazon move to make purchasing and receiving goods as simple as ever, safe and reliable entry into the home becomes critical to the mission. Ring, which has made neighborhood safety and home security its main priority since inception, is a capable partner in that mission.

Of course, one doesn’t often build a successful company and sell for $1 billion on their first go. Prior to Ring, Siminoff founded PhoneTag, the world’s first voicemail-to-text company and Unsubscribe.com. Both of those companies were sold. Based on his founding portfolio alone, it’s clear that part of Siminoff’s success can be attributed to understanding what consumers need and executing on a solution.

Dr. Jason Mars – Clinc

AI has the potential to change everything, but there is a fundamental disconnect between what AI is capable of and how we interface with it. Clinc has tried to close that gap with its conversational AI, emulating human intelligence to interpret unstructured, unconstrained speech.

Clinc is currently targeting the financial market, letting users converse with their bank account using natural language without any pre-defined templates or hierarchical voice menus.

But there are far more applications for this kind of conversational tech. As voice interfaces like Alexa and Google Assistant pick up steam, there is clearly an opportunity to bring this kind of technology to all facets of our lives.

At Disrupt SF, Clinc’s founder and CEO Dr. Jason Mars plans to do just that, debuting other ways that Clinc’s conversational AI can be applied. Without ruining the surprise, let me just say that this is going to be a demo you won’t want to miss.

Tickets to Disrupt are available here.

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