Hackers are said to have broken into the networks of U.S. space agency NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration as part of a wider espionage campaign targeting U.S. government agencies and private companies.
Spokespeople for the agencies did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but did not deny the breach in remarks to the Post.
It’s believed NASA and the FAA are the two remaining unnamed agencies of the nine government agencies confirmed to have been breached by the attack. The other seven include the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, and State, the Treasury, and the National Institutes of Health, though it’s not believed the attackers breached their classified networks.
FireEye, Microsoft, and Malwarebytes were among a number of cybersecurity companies also breached as part of the attacks.
The Biden administration is reportedly preparing sanctions against Russia, in large part because of the hacking campaign, the Post also reported.
The attacks were discovered last year after FireEye raised the alarm about the hacking campaign after its own network was breached. Each victim was a customer of the U.S. software firm SolarWinds, whose network management tools are used across the federal government and Fortune 500 companies. The hackers broke into SolarWinds’ network, planted a backdoor in its software, and pushed the backdoor to customer networks with a tainted software update.
It wasn’t the only way in. The hackers are also said to have targeted other companies by breaking into other devices and appliances on their victims’ networks, as well as targeting Microsoft vendors to breach other customers’ networks.
Last week, Anne Neuberger, the former NSA cybersecurity director who last month was elevated to the White House’s National Security Council to serve as the deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, said that the attack took “months to plan and execute,” and will “take us some time to uncover this layer by layer.”
It’s a heady time for startups making vehicles powered by anything other than hydrocarbons, and the SPAC wave has hit it hard.
Electric car companies Arrival, Canoo, ChargePoint, Fisker, Lordstown Motors, Proterra and The Lion Electric Company are some of the companies that have merged with SPACs — or announced plans to — in the past year.
Now it appears that any company that has anything to do with the electrification of any mode of transportation is going to get waved onto the runway for a public listing through a special purpose acquisition company vehicle — a wildly popular route at the moment for companies that might find traditional IPO listings more challenging to carry out but would rather not stay in startup mode when it comes to fundraising.
The investment group reportedly taking Joby to the moon! out to public markets is led by the billionaire tech entrepreneurs and investors Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, and Mark Pincus, who launched the casual gaming company, Zynga.
Together the two men had formed Reinvent Technology Partners, a special purpose acquisition company, earlier in 2020. The shell company went public and raised $690 million to make a deal.
Any transaction for Joby would be a win for the company’s backers including Toyota, Baillie Gifford, Intel Capital, JetBlue Technology Ventures (the investment arm of the US-based airline), and Uber, which invested $125 million into Joby.
Joby has a prototype that has already taken 600 flights, but has yet to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. And the success of any transaction between the company and Hoffman and Pincus’ SPAC group is far from a sure thing, as the FT noted.
The deal would require an additional capital infusion into the SPAC that the two men established, and without that extra cash, all bets are off. Indeed, that is probably one reason why anyone is reading about this now.
Alternatively powered transportation vehicles of all stripes and covering all modes of travel are the rage right now among the public investment crowd. Part of that is due to rising pressure among institutional investors to find companies with an environmental, sustainability, and good governance thesis that they can invest in, and part of that is due to tailwinds coming from government regulations pushing for the decarbonization of fleets in a bid to curb global warming.
The environmental impact is one chief reason that United chief executive Scott Kirby cited when speaking about his company’s $1 billion purchase order from the electric plane company that actually announced it would be pursuing a public offering through a SPAC earlier this week.
“By working with Archer, United is showing the aviation industry that now is the time to embrace cleaner, more efficient modes of transportation,” Kirby said. “With the right technology, we can curb the impact aircraft have on the planet, but we have to identify the next generation of companies who will make this a reality early and find ways to help them get off the ground.”
It’s also an investment in a possible new business line that could eventually shuttle United passengers to and from an airport, as TechCrunch reported earlier. United projected that a trip in one of Archer’s eVTOL aircraft could reduce CO2 emissions by up to 50% per passenger traveling between Hollywood and Los Angeles International Airport.
The agreement to go public and the order from United Airlines comes less than a year after Archer Aviation came out of stealth. Archer was co-founded in 2018 by Adam Goldstein and Brett Adcock, who sold their software-as-a-service company Vettery to The Adecco Group for more than $100 million. The company’s primary backer was Marc Lore, who sold his company Jet.com to Walmart in 2016 for $3.3 billion. Lore was Walmart’s e-commerce chief until January.
For any SPAC investors or venture capitalists worried that they’re now left out of the EV plane investment bonanza, take heart! There’s still the German tech developer, Lilium. And if an investor is interested in supersonic travel, there’s always Boom.
German drone technology startup Wingcopter has raised a $22 million Series A – its first significant venture capital raise after mostly bootstrapping. The company, which focuses on drone delivery, has come a long way since its founding in 2017, having developed, built and flown its Wingcopter 178 heavy-lift cargo delivery drone using its proprietary and patented tilt-rotor propellant mechanism, which combines all the benefits of vertical take-off and landing with the advantages of fixed-wing aircraft for longer distance horizontal flight.
This new Series A round was led by Silicon Valley VC Xplorer Capital, as well as German growth fund Futury Regio Growth. Wingcopter CEO and founder Tom Plümmer explained to the in an interview that the addition of an SV-based investor is particularly important to the startup, since it’s in the process of preparing its entry into the U.S., with plans for an American facility, both for flight testing to satisfy FAA requirements for operational certification, as well as eventually for U.S.-based drone production.
Wingcopter has already been operating commercially in a few different markets globally, including in Vanuatu in partnership with Unicef for vaccine delivery to remote areas, in Tanzania for two-way medical supply delivery working with Tanzania, and in Ireland where it completed the world’s first delivery of insulin by drone beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS, the industry’s technical term for when a drone flies beyond the visual range of a human operator who has the ability to take control in case of emergencies).
Wingcopter CEO and co-founder Tom Plümmer
While Wingcopter has so far pursued a business as an OEM manufacturer of drones, and has had paying customers eager to purchase its hardware effectively since day one (Plümmer told me that they had at least one customer wiring them money before they even had a bank account set up for the business), but it’s also now getting into the business of offering drone delivery-as-a-service. After doing the hard work of building its technology from the ground up, and seeking out the necessary regulatory approvals to operate in multiple markets around the world, Plümmer says that he and his co-founders realized that operating a service business not only meant a new source of revenue, but also better-served the needs of many of its potential customers.
“We learned during this process, through applying for permission, receiving these permissions and working now in five continents in multiple countries, flying BVLOS, that actually operating drones is something we are now very good at,” he said. This was actually becoming a really good source of income, and ended up actually making up more than half of our revenue at some point. Also looking at scalability of the business model of being an OEM, it’s kind of […] linear.”
Linear growth with solid revenue and steady demand was fine for Wingcopter as a bootstrapped startup founded by university students supported by a small initial investment from family and friends. But Plümmer says the company say so much potential in the technology it had developed, and the emerging drone delivery market, that the exponential growth curve of its drone delivery-as-a-service model helped make traditional VC backing make sense. In the early days, Plümmer says Wingcopter had been approached by VCs, but at the time it didn’t make sense for what they were trying to do; that’s changed.
“We were really lucky to bootstrap over the last four years,” Plümmer said. “Basically, just by selling drones and creating revenue, we could employ our first 30 employees. But at some point, you realize you want to really plan with that revenue, so you want to have monthly revenues, which generally repeat like a software business – like software as a service.”
Wingcopter 178 cargo drone performing a delivery for Merck.
Wingcopter has also established a useful hedge regarding its service business, not only by being its own hardware supplier, but also by having worked closely with many global flight regulators on their regulatory process through the early days of commercial drone flights. They’re working with the FAA on its certification process now, for instance, with Plümmer saying that they participate in weekly calls with the regulator on its upcoming certification process for BVLOS drone operators. Understanding the regulatory environment, and even helping architect it, is a major selling point for partners who don’t want to have to build out that kind of expertise and regulatory team in-house.
Meanwhile, the company will continue to act as an OEM as well, selling not only its Wingcopter 178 heavy-lift model, which can fly up to 75 miles, at speeds of up to 100 mph, and that can carry payloads up to around 13 lbs. Because of its unique tilt-rotor mechanism, it’s not only more efficient in flight, but it can also fly in much windier conditions – and take-off and land in harsher conditions than most drones, too.
Plümmer tells me that Wingcopter doesn’t intend to rest on its laurels in the hardware department, either; it’s going to be introducing a new model of drone soon, with different capabilities that expand the company’s addressable market, both as an OEM and in its drones-as-a-service business.
With its U.S. expansion, Wingcopter will still look to focus specifically on the delivery market, but Plümmer points out that there’s no reason its unique technology couldn’t also work well to serve markets including observation and inspection, or to address needs in the communication space as well. The one market that Wingcopter doesn’t intend to pursue, however, is military and defense. While these are popular customers in the aerospace and drone industries, Plümmer says that Wingcopter has a mission “to create sustainable and efficient drone solutions for improving and saving lives,” and says the startup looks at every potential customer and ensures that it aligns with its vision – which defense customers do not.
While the company has just announced the close of its Series A round, Plümmer says they’re already in talks with some potential investors to join a Series B. It’s also going to be looking for U.S. based talent in embedded systems software and flight operations testing, to help with the testing process required its certification by the FAA.
Plümmer sees a long tail of value to be built from Wingcopter’s patented tilt-rotor design, with potential applications in a range of industries, and he says that Wingcopter won’t be looking around for any potential via M&A until it has fully realized that value. Meanwhile, the company is also starting to sow the seeds of its own potential future customers, with training programs in drone flights and operations it’s putting on in partnership with UNICEF’s African Drone and Data Academy. Wingcopter clearly envisions a bright future for drone delivery, and its work in focusing its efforts on building differentiating hardware, plus the role it’s playing in setting the regulatory agenda globally, could help position it at the center of that future.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued new final rules to help pave the way for the re-introduction of supersonic commercial flight. The U.S. airspace regulator’s rules provide guidance for companies looking to gain approval for flight testing of supersonic aircraft under development, which includes startups like Boom Supersonic, which has just completed its sub-scale supersonic demonstrator aircraft and hopes to begin flight testing it this year.
Boom, which is in the process of finalizing a $50 million funding round and has raised around $150 million across prior fundraising efforts, rolled out its XB-1 supersonic demonstrator jet in October. This test aircraft is smaller than the final design of its Overture passenger supersonic commercial airliner, but will be used to prove out the fundamental technologies in flight that will then be used to construct Overture, which the company is targeting for a 2025 rollout with airline partners.
Other startups, including Hermeus, are also pursuing supersonic flight for commercial use. Meanwhile, SpaceX and others focused on spaceflight like Virgin Galactic are exploring not only supersonic flight, but how point-to-point flight that includes part of the trip at the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere might reduce flight times dramatically and turn long-haul flights into much shorter, almost regional trips.
It’s only a matter of time now before drones become a key component of everyday logistics infrastructure, but there are still significant barriers between where we are today and that future – particularly when it comes to regulation. Iris Automation is developing computer vision products that can help simplify the regulatory challenges involved in setting standards for pilotless flight, thanks to its detect-and-avoid technology that can run using a wide range of camera hardware. The company has raised a $13 million Series B funding round to improve and extend its tech, and to help provide demonstrations of its efficacy in partnership with regulators.
I spoke to Iris Automation CEO Jon Damush, and Iris Automation investor Tess Hatch, VP at Bessemer Venture Partners, about the round and the startup’s progress and goals. Damush, who took over as CEO earlier this year, talked about his experience at Boeing, his personal experience as a pilot, and the impact on aviation of the advent of small, cheap and readily accessible electric motors, batteries and powerful computing modules, which have set the stage for an explosion in the commercial UAV industry.
“You’ve now shattered some of the barriers that have been in aerospace for the past 50 years, because you’re starting to really democratize the tools of production that allow people to make things that fly much easier than they could before,” Damush told me. “So with that, and the ability to take a human out of the cockpit, comes some interesting challenges – none more so than the regulatory environment.”
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and most airspace regulators around the world, essentially break regulations around commercial flight down into two spheres, Damush explains. The first is around operations – what are you going to do while in flight, and are you doing that the right way. The second, however, is about the pilot, and that’s a much trickier thing to adapt to pilotless aircraft.
“One of the biggest challenges is the part of the regulations called 91.113b, and what that part of the regs states is that given weather conditions that permit, it’s the pilot on the airplane that has the ultimate responsibility to see and avoid other aircraft,” That’s not a separation standard that says you’ve got to be three miles away, or five miles away or a mile away – that is a last line of defense, that is a safety net, so that when all the other mitigations that lead to a safe flight from A to B fail, the pilot is there to make sure you don’t collide into somebody.”
Iris comes in here, with an optical camera-based obstacle avoidance system that uses computer vision to effectively replace this last line of defence when there isn’t a pilot to do so. And what this unlocks is a key limiting factor in today’s commercial drone regulatory environment: The ability to fly aircraft beyond visual line of sight. All that means is that drones can operate without having to guarantee that an operator has eyes on them at all times. When you first hear that, you imagine that this factors in mostly to long-distance flight, but Damush points out that it’s actually more about volume – removing the constraints of having to keep a drone within visual line of sight at all times means you can go from having one operator per drone, to one operator managing a fleet of drones, which is when the economies of scale of commercial drone transportation really start to make sense.
Iris has made progress towards making this a reality, working with the FAA this year as part of its integrated pilot program to demonstrate the system in two different use cases. It also released the second version of its Casia system, which can handle significantly longer range object detection. Hatch pointed out that these were key reasons why Bessemer upped its stake with this follow-on investment, and when I asked if COVID-19 has had any impact on industry appetite or confidence in the commercial drone market, she said that has been a significant factor, and it’s also changing the nature of the industry.
“The two largest industries [right now] are agriculture and public safety enforcement,” Hatch told me. “And public safety enforcement was not one of those last year, it was agriculture, construction and energy. That’s definitely become a really important vertical for the drone industry – one could imagine someone having a heart attack or an allergic reaction, an ambulance takes on average 14 minutes to get to that person, when a drone can be dispatched and deliver an AED or an epi pen within minutes, saving that person’s life. So I really hope that tailwind continues post COVID.”
This Series B round includes investment from Bee Partners, OCA Ventures, and new strategic investors Sony Innovation Fund and Verizon Ventures (disclosure: TechCrunch is owned by Verizon Media Group, though we have no involvement, direct or otherwise, with their venture arm). Damush pointed out that Sony provides great potential strategic value because it develops so much of the imaging sensor stack used in the drone industry, and Sony also develops drones itself. For its part, Verizon offers key partner potential on the connectivity front, which is invaluable for managing large-scale drone operations.
Zipline’s work with Walmart in Arkansas compliments a pilot delivery program that the company began in North Carolina earlier this year. Working with Novant Health, Zipline has been delivering medical equipment and personal protective gear via drone to regions of North Carolina since May.
The drone operation with Walmart will deliver health and wellness products initially, with the potential to expand to general merchandise.
A movement into the delivery of general goods would be something of a pivot for Zipline, which has touted its ability to handle medical supplies and equipment since the launch of its services across Africa in 2016.
Trial deliveries for the new service will begin in Northwest Arkansas and cover a 50-mile radius, according to a statement from Walmart.
Walmart’s forays into drone delivery come as its largest competitor, Amazon, also picks up activity in the drone aviation industry.
In late August, Amazon’s Prime Air drone delivery fleet received approval from the FAA to begin trialing commercial deliveries. It’s similar to the certification that logistics companies like UPS received to test their own drone delivery networks.
Rather than operate its own drone fleet, Walmart seems content to partner with existing companies working in the space — for now.
Amazon has been granted an approval by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that will allow it to start trialling commercial deliveries via drone, Bloomberg reports. This certification is the same one granted to UPS and a handful of other companies, and while it doesn’t mean that Amazon can immediately start operating a consumer drone delivery service for everyone, it does allow them to make progress towards that goal.
Amazon has said it’ll kick off its own delivery tests, though it hasn’t shared any details on when and where exactly those will begin. The FAA clearance for these trials is adapted from the safety rules and regulations it imposes for companies operating a commercial airline service, with special exceptions allowing for companies to bypass the requirements that specifically deal with onboard crew and staff working the aircraft, since the drones don’t have any.
These guidelines are at best a patchwork solution designed by the agency and its commercial partners to help provide a way for them to get underway with crucial systems development and safety testing and design, but the FAA is working towards a more fit-for-purpose set of regulations to govern drone airline operation for later this year. That will mostly be related to authorizing flights over crowds – but any drone flights will still require constant human observation.
Ultimately, any actual viable and practical system of drone delivery will require fully autonomous operation, without direct line-of-sight observation. Amazon has plans for its MK27 drones, which have a maximum 5 lb carrying capacity, to do just that, but it’ll still likely be many years before the regulatory and air traffic control infrastructure is updated to the point where that can happen regularly.
Rocket Lab has made a remarkable recovery after losing a payload during a mission failure on July 4 – just eight weeks later, the company has set a launch window for its next dedicated commercial mission that spans 12 days beginning August 27 at 3:05 PM local New Zealand time.
At the end of July, Rocket Lab revealed that it had received crucial FAA clearance to resume its launch activities, following an internal investigation that lasted a month and identified the root cause – a component that had performed fine previously, but that somehow hadn’t undergone rigorous and thorough testing. Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck noted that they’d be able to mitigate the problem with a relatively simple change to their production process, and even remedy the component on existing, already-produced Electron launch vehicles.
Rocket Lab’s quick turnaround on this resolution and return to active launch status also has to do with the nature of the problem – the error actually resulted in an early, but safe shutdown of the Electron’s engines, which meant that it didn’t reach its target orbit. The rocket didn’t explode, however, or cause any kind of safety risk. That also meant Rocket Lab was able to easily pull data about the issue that caused the failure after the engines cut off.
Other companies have endured much longer shutdown times following launch vehicle failures: SpaceX took four months to return to active flights after its 2016 pre-flight loss of a Falcon 9 with a Facebook internet satellite on board. That was a very different kind of failure, however, for all the reasons mentioned above.
Still, it’s a sign of the resilience and flexibility of Rocket Lab’s model that it’s already set to begin serving paying customers again the month following its own ordeal. This launch won’t further its efforts to develop a partly reusable launch system with a booster recovery process, however.
SpaceX had just conducted yet another static fire test of the Raptor engine in its Starship SN4 prototype launch vehicle on Friday when the test vehicle exploded on the test stand in Boca Chica, Texas. This was the fourth static fire test of this engine on this prototype, so it’s unclear what went wrong versus other static fire attempts.
This was a test in the development of Starship, a new spacecraft that SpaceX has been developing in Boca Chica. Eventually, the company hopes to use it to replace its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket, but Starship is still very early in its development phase, whereas those vehicles are flight-proven, multiple times over.
SpaceX had just secured FAA approval to fly its Starship prototype for short, suborbital test flights. The goal was to fly this SN4 prototype for short distances following static fire testing, but that clearly won’t be possible now, as the vehicle appears to have been completely destroyed in the explosion following Friday’s test, as you can see below in the stream from NASASpaceflight.com.
The explosion occurred around 1:49 PM local time in Texas, roughly two minutes after it had completed its engine test fire. We’ve reached out to SpaceX to find out more about the cause of today’s incident, and whether anyone was hurt in the explosion. SpaceX typically takes plenty of safety precautions when running these tests, including ensuring the area is well clear of any personnel or other individuals.
This isn’t the first time one of SpaceX’s Starship prototypes has met a catastrophic end; a couple of previous test vehicles succumbed to pressure testing while being put through their paces. This is why space companies test frequently and stress test vehicles during development — to ensure that the final operational vehicles are incredibly safe and reliable when they need to be.
SpaceX is already working on additional prototypes, including assembling SN5 nearby in Boca Chica, so it’s likely to resume its testing program quickly once it can clear the test stand and move in the newest prototype. This is a completely separate endeavor from SpaceX’s work on the Commercial Crew program, so that historic first test launch with astronauts on board should proceed either Saturday or Sunday as planned, depending on weather.
SpaceX has received authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly suborbital missions with its Starship prototype spacecraft, paving the way for test flights at its Boca Chica, Texas site. SpaceX has been hard at work readying its latest Starship prototype for low-altitude, short duration controlled flight tests, and conducted another static engine fire test of the fourth iteration of its in-development spacecraft earlier today.
Officially, the FAA has granted SpaceX permission to conduct what it terms “reusable launch vehicle” missions, which essentially means that the Starship prototype is now cleared to take-off from, and land back at, the launch site SpaceX operates in Boca Chica. The Elon Musk-led space company has already conducted similar tests, but previously used its ‘Starhopper’ early prototype, which was smaller than the planned production Starship, and much more rudimentary in design. It was basically used to prove out the capabilities of the Raptor engine that SpaceX will use to propel Starship, and only for a short hop test using one of those engines.
Since that flight last year, SpaceX has developed multiple iterations of a full-scale prototype of Starship, but thus far they haven’t gotten back to the point where they’re actively flying any of those. In fact, multiple iterations of the Starship prototype have succumbed during pressure testing – though SN4, the version currently being prepared for a test flight, has passed not only pressure tests, but also static test fires of its lone Raptor engine.
The plan now is to fly this one for a short ‘hop’ flight similar to the one conducted by Starhopper, with a maximum altitude of around 500 feet. Should that prove successful, the next version will be loaded with more Raptor engines, and attempt a high altitude test launch. SpaceX is quickly building newer version of Starship in succession even as it proceeds with testing the completed prototypes, in order to hopefully shorten the total timespan of its development.
There’s something of a clock that SpaceX is working against: It was one of three companies that received a contract award from NASA to develop and build a human lander for the agency’s Artemis program to return to the Moon. NASA aims to make that return trip happen by 2024, and while the contract doesn’t necessarily require that each provided have a lander ready in that timeframe, it’s definitely a goal, if only for bragging rights among the three contract awardees.
Autonomous aviation startup Xwing locked in a $10 million funding round before COVID-19 hit. Now the San Francisco-based startup is using the capital to hire talent and scale the development of its software stack as it aims for commercial operations later this year — pending FAA approvals.
The company announced Wednesday its Series A funding round, which was led by R7 Partners, with participation from early-stage VC Alven, Eniac Ventures and Thales Corporate Ventures. Xwing has already hired several key executives with that fresh injection of capital, including Terrafugia’s former co-founder and COO Anna Dietrich and Ed Lim, a Lockheed Martin and Aurora Flight Sciences veteran who more recently led guidance navigation and control for Uber’s autonomous car division as well as Zipline’s AV delivery drone.
Xwing is different from some of the other autonomous aviations startups that have popped up in recent years. The startup isn’t building autonomous helicopters and planes. Instead, it’s focused on the software stack that will enable pilotless flight of small passenger aircraft.
Xwing is also aircraft agnostic. The company’s engineers are focused on the key functions of autonomous flight, such as sensing, reasoning and control. The software stack, which is designed to work across different kinds of aircraft, is integrated into existing aerospace systems. That strategy of retrofitting existing aircraft will speed up deployment, while maintaining safety and keeping costs in check, according to founder and CEO Marc Piette. It also is a straighter path towards regulatory approval.
“It’s more effective for us to not constrain ourselves to a given vehicle and to develop technology that is considered more of an enabler— from a marketing perspective — than going full stack, Piette said when asked if Xwing would ever try to build an autonomous aircraft from the groundup.
Since Xwing’s last funding round — $4 million in summer 2018 — the company has been developing its tech and working with the FAA to receive flight certification for pilotless aircraft. Once approved, the company will seek to commercialize pilotless flights.
The startup hasn’t named any commercial partners yet. And Piette hasn’t provided details about its commercial strategy either, although he said to expect more announcements this year.
Xwing is already working with Bell for NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS in the NAS) program, an initiative meant to mature the key remaining technologies that are needed to integrate unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace. The program plans to hold demonstration flights this summer.