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Orbital refueling and manufacturing go from theory to reality in 2021



The idea of satellites and other spacecraft being able to refuel, repair, or even add new capabilities while in orbit has generally seemed like a “nice in theory” one, but as leaders from Maxar, Astroscale, and Orbit Fab explained at TC Sessions: Space, 2021 will be the year that theory becomes reality — or at the very least, realistic.

Once they go up, satellites are generally considered fixed assets that only depreciate, become obsolete, or reach the end of their fuel supply and inevitably deorbit. But with a bit of coordination many of these phenomenally expensive spacecraft could have their lives extended in a number of ways, and considering the costs involved in lofting a new one, the prospect may be an attractive one.

“Launch costs are going down, but also launch frequency, the cadence in which things are being sent up into space is also going up,” pointed out Lucy Condakchian, GM of robotics at Maxar Technologies . “So if you can launch smaller subsystems payloads and whatnot, and then be able to assemble things in space, maybe change out a certain aspect of what that satellite is doing… Why can’t we go up and actually change out a power subsystem, change out a camera mechanism, a computing element, whatever the case may be?”

That’s what Maxar and NASA will be demonstrating next year with OSAM-1, formerly called Restore-L, in which a spacecraft will attempt to service, assemble, and manufacture items (hence the name) while on orbit.

“Just being able to demonstrate something in space shows that we can do that, proves the point of ‘Yes, it is possible,’ and hopefully it opens up much further opportunities down the road,” said Condakchian. The company’s robotic arms for Martian landers have shown their versatility, as well, and there’s no reason to think that satellite arms won’t be as broadly useful.

While Maxar is aiming to equip future spacecraft, Ron Lopez, President of Astroscale US (the original company is Japan-based), sees an opportunity in today’s aging space infrastructure.

“There are a lot of companies that are developing on orbit inspection services. That’s for the satellites that are already out there that don’t have those robotic capabilities, or can’t afford to have them in the future when the product owner-operator decides not to put them on,” he explained.

“There’s any number of different use cases for this kind of capability,” he continued. “Insurance claims if there’s an anomaly on a satellite, and it needs to be determined what it was that happened, etc, or space situational awareness. Of course, we know that this is a big concern for everybody with the increasing number of objects in space, understanding what’s where, doing what, and is it a threat to other objects in space, is very important.”

Astroscale, which recently raised a $51M series E, is about to launch a mission in just a few months that will demonstrate orbital debris detection and removal. That doesn’t mean spare screws dropped by ISS spacewalks — more likely dead satellites that have been left to drift and deorbit on their own time, which could be years from now. All they need is a little push and low-Earth orbit is that much safer and cleaner.

Daniel Faber, CEO and founder of Orbit Fab, wants to prevent that situation from occurring in the first place by building what he calls “gas stations in space.” It’s a bit different from the terrestrial ones, closer perhaps to in-flight refueling of jets, but you get the idea.

“The future that Orbit Fab sees is a fully cooperative and bustling in space economy, we don’t think that that can be achieved by relying on robotics on every spacecraft, there’s always going to be a need for tow trucks, there’s always going to be a need for complex robotic servicing when things go wrong, and things break down. And right now, nothing has been designed to be serviced. So you need a tow truck for any of these type of things,” he said.

“We failed to build a satellite gas tanker because we couldn’t find the fueling port. So we built one,” he said, referring to the company’s RAFTI connector, which dozens of partners are now looking at including in their spacecraft. “We’ve had to develop other products and technologies as well to make refueling accessible to our customers.”

The tanker will have its first orbit tests — you guessed it, next year. A recently announced investment, bringing their seed total to $6M, should help make that happen. 2021 is looking to be a big one for many areas of space, but in this particular sector it will be the moment where the capability is proven out, perhaps leading to a major expansion the following year.

That was just a fraction of what we talked about on the panel. If you missed it live, don’t worry – Extra Crunch subscribers get access to all the on-stage content from TC Sessions: Space and every other event as well. Sign up here.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Comcast hides upload speeds deep inside its infuriating ordering system



An NBC peacock logo is on the loose and hiding behind the corner of a brick building.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Comcast just released a 2020 Network Performance Data report with stats on how much Internet usage rose during the pandemic, and it said that upload use is growing faster than download use. “Peak downstream traffic in 2020 increased approximately 38 percent over 2019 levels and peak upstream traffic increased approximately 56 percent over 2019 levels,” Comcast said.

But while upload use on Comcast’s network quickly grows—driven largely by videoconferencing among people working and learning at home—the nation’s largest home-Internet provider with over 30 million customers advertises its speed tiers as if uploading doesn’t exist. Comcast’s 56 percent increase in upstream traffic made me wonder if the company will increase upload speeds any time soon, so I checked out the Xfinity website today to see the current upload speeds. Getting that information was even more difficult than I expected.

The Xfinity website advertises cable-Internet plans with download speeds starting at 25Mbps without mentioning that upstream speeds are just a fraction of the downstream ones. I went through Comcast’s online ordering system today and found no mention of upload speeds anywhere. Even clicking “pricing & other info” and “view plan details” links to read the fine print on various Internet plans didn’t reveal upload speeds.

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Bank of America is bringing VR instruction to its 4,000 banks



As consumer VR begins to have a moment following years of heavy investment from Facebook and other tech giants, corporate America is similarly beginning to find more utility in the technology, as well.

Bank of America announced today that they’ll be working with Bay Area-based VR startup Strivr to bring more of their workplace training into virtual reality. The financial institution has already used the startup’s tech in a pilot effort with about 400 employees, but a wide-scale rollout means scaling the VR learning platform to more of the company’s 45,000 employees and bringing thousands of VR headsets to its bank branches.

Bank of America exec John Jordan has plenty of ideas of where it will be able to implement the technology most effectively, but is open to experimenting early-on, noting that they’ve developed VR lessons for everything from notary services to fraud detection. Jordan also says that they’re working on more ambitious tasks like helping employees practice empathy with customers dealing with sensitive matters like the death of a relative.

Jordan says the scope of the company’s corporate learning program “The Academy” is largely unmatched among other major companies in the U.S., except perhaps by the employee instruction programs at Walmart, he notes. Walmart has been Strivr’s largest customer since the startup signed the retail behemoth back in 2017 to bring VR instruction to their 200 “Walmart Academy” instruction centers and all Walmart stores.

Virtual reality is a technology that lends itself to capturing undivided attention, something that is undoubtedly positive for increasing learning retention, which Jordan says was one of the central appeals for adopting the tech. For Bank of America, VR offers a platform change to reexamine some of the pitfalls of conventional corporate learning. At the same time, they acknowledge that the tech isn’t a silver bullet and that are plenty of best practices for VR that are still unknowns.

“We’re just taking it slow to be honest,” Jordan says. “We already feel pretty great about how we’ve made investments, but we view this as a way to get better.”

Enterprise VR startups have seen varying levels of success over the years as they’ve aimed to find paying customers that can tolerate the limitations of the technology while buying in on the broader vision. Strivr has raised over $51 million, including a $30 million Series B last year, as it has aimed to become a leader in the workplace training space. CEO Derek Belch tells TechCrunch that the company has big plans as it looks towards raising more funding and works to build out its software toolsets to help simplify VR content creation for its partners.



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Cashify raises $15 million for its second-hand smartphone business in India



Tens of millions of people each year purchase a second-hand smartphone in India, the world’s second largest market. Phone makers and giant online sellers such as Amazon and Flipkart are aware of it, but it’s too much of a hassle for them to inspect, repair, and resell used phones. But these firms also know that customers are more likely to buy a smartphone if they are offered the ability to trade-in their existing handsets.

A startup that is helping these firms tackle this challenge said on Thursday it has raised $15 million in a new financing round. New York-based Olympus Capital Asia made the investment through Asia Environmental Partners, a fund dedicated to the environmental sector. The five-year-old startup, which counts Blume Ventures  among its early investors, has raised $42 million to date.

Cashify operates an eponymous platform — both online and physical stores and kiosks — for users to sell and buy used smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, laptops, desktops, and gaming consoles. 90% of its business today surrounds the smartphone category, explained Mandeep Manocha, founder and chief executive of Cashify, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“For consumers, our proposition is that we make it easy for you to sell your devices. You come to our site or app, answer questions to objectively evaluate the condition of your device, and we give you an estimate of how much your gadget is worth,” he said. “If you like the price, we pick it up from your doorstep and give you instant cash.”

A few years ago, I wrote about the struggle e-commerce firms face globally in handling returned items. There are many liability challenges — such as having to ensure that the innards in a returned smartphone haven’t been tempered with — as well as overhead costs in reversing an order.

Manocha said that phone makers and e-commerce firms have found better ways to handle returned items in recent years, but they still lose a significant amount of money on them. These challenges have created a big opportunity for startups such as Cashify.

In fact, Cashify says it’s the market leader in its category in India. The startup has partnerships with “nearly every OEM” including Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Oppo, Xiaomi, Vivo, and HP. “If you walk into an Apple store today, they use our platform.” For consumers in India, if they opted for the trade-in program, also uses Cashify’s trading platform, he said.

The startup also works with top e-commerce firms in India — Amazon, Flipkart, and Paytm Mall. The firms use Cashify’s trading and exchange software, and also rely on the startup for liquidation of devices. The startup then repairs these gadgets and sells the refurbished units to customers.

“Essentially, whether you come directly to us, or go to popular e-commerce firms or phone OEMs, we are handling the majority of the trading,” he said. Even if a customer trades in the device to OEMs, or e-commerce firms, these companies sell the device to players like Cashify, which serves over 2 million customers in more than 1,500 cities.

The startup plans to deploy part of the fresh capital to expand its presence in the offline market. Manocha said Cashify currently has dozens of offline stores and kiosks at shopping malls across the country and it has already proven immensely effective in brand awareness among customers.

The startup also plans to expand outside of India, hire more talent, and invest more in getting the word out about its offerings. Manocha said the team is also working on expanding its expertise to more hardware categories such as cameras.

“The management team at Cashify has an excellent track record in building a strong consumer-facing franchise and building relationships with OEMs, e-commerce companies and electronic product retailers to be present across all touch points for the consumer,” said Pankaj Ghai, Managing Director of Asia Environmental Partners, in a statement.

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