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Entrepreneurs say regulatory constraints are hampering commercial applications of space tech

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When Payam Banazadeh and his team started Capella Space in 2016, they had visions of providing private industry with a wealth of new data that they could use in all sorts of ways to create business opportunities and improve efficiencies.

Four years later, Banazadeh is still waiting for that commercial opportunity.

Capella is still successful. The company has managed to raise $82 million in venture capital financing and has a robust pipeline of government contracts, but Banazadeh has not seen the kinds of uptake in private industry.

He’s not the only one.

Speaking at TC Sessions: Space 2020, Banazadeh was among a number of executives including Peter Platzer, the chief executive officer of Spire Global; Helsinki-based ICEYE’s co-founder and chief executive Rafal Modrzewski; and Melanie Stricklan, the founder and chief strategy officer of Slingshot Aerospace; who spoke about the central role government plays in the current space business and how they’re hoping that will change.

“I think regulation in the US… has made huge improvements this past year. But the challenge is always how do you balance national security concerns with making sure that the US industrial space can keep up with the competition internationally,” Banazadeh said. “I think we need to… in the US… we need to take a leadership position to not just restrict the US companies on following what international companies are doing, but rather allow US companies to go above and beyond and be able to capture more of the commercial market by being able to provide some of the more advanced features [that they have] on the government side.”

Modrzewski agreed.

“When we were starting ICEYE, we were kind of all under the impression that the idea behind new space and things that we are doing, is really to enable the use of observation for the betterment of the world… For improving efficiencies of businesses, monitoring climate change, doing all these things that that that we haven’t been able to do to do before,” he said. “And when I look at basically democratizing data and handing best capabilities available to commercial industries, as well as to the government, ultimately, right, because they are users of the same, the same supply chain. I see that you know, the largest factor that’s currently stopping the evolution is actually national approach to particular sets of activities. I think the the more globally we approach to the market, the broader the competition, the less limitation we impact… It seems to work significantly better for everyone as a global community, if we allow those companies to freely collaborate, and the data exchange to be free. So if there was one wish that I had for 2021, it is to have less borders, and more open markets in terms of exchange of data.”

Governments are, already, massive customers for most of these businesses. In total government spending represents around half of the total $423 billion spent on the space industry already, according to data from Statista.

But if the industry is to achieve the $1 trillion potential revenue that Morgan Stanley projects for businesses in the next 20 years, then more will have to be done to unlock private industry.

“When we started the company, we saw the immediate opportunity in commercial. And as we dug a little deeper and made some progress, we realized that the commercial market is still not as mature as we had hoped it to be. And in the meantime, we quickly found out that the government market, both US government, as well as international governments are expanding and growing much faster than, than before, specifically for this type of data, because of the new challenges and challenges and threats that are that are around the corner,” Banazadeh said. “And so we’ve pivoted and focused on going after governments in catering to their needs… We do want to get back into commercial, we have that aspiration. And that’s our long term goal. We just think that we’re probably a few years out to get there.”

While the commercial market may not have materialized to the degree that these entrepreneurs would have hoped, there are still opportunities for plenty of business from government contracts thanks, in part, to the increasing complexity of operating in space.

That means big business for company’s like Slingshot, which provides what Stricklan calls “situational awareness.”

“Whether that’s in orbit or terrestrially, we provide answers to our customers around their risk and and how to mitigate that risk, or at least how to understand the risk as it pertains to spatial-temporal information,” Stricklan said. “And so right now … their most important asset is their data [and] in order to get that data, they have to have their satellites in orbit, and they have to have safety of flight and all those different things.”

The exploding number of satellites in orbit and the presence of nearly 500,000 pieces of space debris means that operationally these very expensive assets are at greater risk than they were. Slingshot tries to solve that problem by giving its customers orbital awareness of potential risks, and providing ways to process data to understand the terrestrial risks that companies face.

Everyone from insurance companies to logistics providers to financial investors use satellite data and imagery in their decision making process and an increasing driver for all of these businesses is a chance to model out impacts from climate change, according to Platzer.

“I think I think the demand for a global understanding off the planet, to use its resources in an effective and responsible way, is unabated. You know, perspire in particular, you know, the impact of climate change through weather on every single business in every single country, for every single person is certainly not going away. And so that demand is is absolutely increasing,” Platzer said. “So I honestly actually see mostly, almost exclusively opportunities, and not necessarily obstacles, funding in the industry is growing at 46%. year over year. Company creation is growing at 32% year over year. So I think I think it’s really a very, very dynamic period, which is more dominated by opportunities than obstacles I would say.”

Increasingly, startups will be able to meet these opportunities, especially if they can receive a boost from government entities that can highlight the areas that are emerging business opportunities and leave it to private industry to pursue them, Modrzewski said.

Still, the panelists agreed that there’s no better time to start a company focused on the space industry than now.

“If I could encourage those that have any sort of inspiration to start a company around space to do it, just do it. Execute on that, that vision, but understand all of the, the things that we talked about today are different than the risk of say, starting a marketing company or those different things. So be up to the challenge to understand the government as part of this and understand rules and regulations, and outside the government that impact how we fly satellites, how we take care of satellites, how we provide data and understand that there’s a lot of legacy that comes with this industry,” Stricklan said. “I think the global space ecosystem is one that remains heavily siloed. It’s not like the digital transformations that have happened in Silicon Valley. Over the last 10 or 15 years. This industry still needs that digital transformation and so the the world is your oyster, but be prepared and be up for the challenge.”

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

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Elon Musk says Tesla Semi is ready for production, but limited by battery cell output

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on the company’s 2020 Q4 earnings call that all engineering work is now complete on the Tesla Semi, the freight-hauling semi truck that the company is building with an all-electric powertrain. The company expects to begin deliveries of Tesla Semi this year, the company said in its Q4 earnings release, and Musk said the only thing limiting their ability to produce them now is the availability of battery cells.

“The main reason we have not accelerated new products – like for example Tesla Semi – is that we simply don’t have enough cells for it,” Musk said. “If we were to make the Semi right now, and we could easily go into production with the Semi right now, but we would not have enough cells for it.”

Musk added that the company does expect to have sufficient cell volume to meet its needs once it goes into production on its 4680 battery pack, which is a new custom cell design it created with a so-called ‘tables’ design that allows for greater energy density and therefore range.

“A Semi would use typically five times the number of cells that a car would use, but it would not sell for five times what a car would sell for, so it kind of would not make sense for us to do the Semi right now,” Musk said. “But it will absolutely make sense for us to do it as soon as we can address the cell production constraint.”

That constraint points to the same conclusion for the possibility of Tesla developing a van, Musk added, and the lifting of the constraint will likewise make it possible for Tesla to pursue the development of that category of vehicle, he said.

Tesla has big plans for “exponentially” ramping cell production, with a goal of having production capacity infrastructure in place for a Toal of 200 gigawatt hours per year by 2022, and a target of being able to actually produce around 40% of that by that year (with future process improvements generating additional gigawatt hours of cell capacity  in gradual improvements thereafter).

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Pro-Trump Twitter figure arrested for spreading vote-by-text disinformation in 2016

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The man behind a once-influential pro-Trump account is facing charges of election interference for allegedly disseminating voting disinformation on Twitter in 2016.

Federal prosecutors allege that Douglass Mackey, who used the name “Ricky Vaughn” on Twitter, encouraged people to cast their ballot via text or on social media, effectively tricking others into throwing away those votes.

According to the Justice Department, 4,900 unique phone numbers texted a phone number Mackey promoted in order to “vote by text.” BuzzFeed reported the vote-by-text scam at the time, noting that many of the images were photoshopped to look like official graphics from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Some of those images appeared to specifically target Black and Spanish-speaking Clinton supporters, a motive that tracks with the account’s track record of white supremacist and anti-Semitic content. The account was suspended in November 2016.

At the time, the mysterious account quickly gained traction in the political disinformation ecosystem. HuffPost revealed that the account was run by Mackey, the son of a lobbyist, two years later.

“… His talent for blending far-right propaganda with conservative messages on Twitter made him a key disseminator of extremist views to Republican voters and a central figure in the alt-right’ white supremacist movement that attached itself to Trump’s coattails,” HuffPost’s Luke O’Brien reported.

Mackey, a West Palm Beach resident, was taken into custody Wednesday in Florida.

“There is no place in public discourse for lies and misinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Seth D. DuCharme said.

“With Mackey’s arrest, we serve notice that those who would subvert the democratic process in this manner cannot rely on the cloak of Internet anonymity to evade responsibility for their crimes.”

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Tesla is willing to license Autopilot and has already had “preliminary discussions” about it with other automakers

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Tesla is open to licensing its software, including its Autopilot highly-automated driving technology, and the neural network training it has built to improve its autonomous driving technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed those considerations on the company’s Q4 earnings call on Wednesday, adding that the company has in fact already “had some preliminary discussions about licensing Autopilot to other OEMs.”

The company began rolling out its beta version of the so-called ‘full self-driving’ or FSD version of Autopilot late last year. The standard Autopilot features available in general release provide advanced driver assistance (ADAS) which provide essentially advanced cruise control capabilities designed primarily for use in highway commutes. Musk said on the call that he expects the company will seek to prove out its FSD capabilities before entering into any licensing agreements, if it does end up pursuing that path.

Musk noted that Tesla’s “philosophy is definitely not to create walled gardens” overall, and pointed out that the company is planning to allow other automakers to use its Supercharger networks, as well as its autonomy software. He characterized Tesla as “more than happy to license” those autonomous technologies to “other car companies,” in fact.

One key technical hurdle required to get to a point where Tesla’s technology is able to demonstrate true reliability far surpassing that of a standard human driver is transition the neural networks operating in the cars and providing them with the analysis that powers their perception engines is to transition those to video. That’s a full-stack transition across the system away from basing it around neural nets trained on single cameras and single frames.

To this end, the company has developed video labelling software that has had “a huge effect on the efficiency of labeling,” with the ultimate aim being enabling automatic labeling. Musk (who isn’t known for modesty around his company’s achievements, it should be said) noted that Tesla believes “it may be the best neural net training computer in the world by possibly an order of magnitude,” adding that it’s also “something we can offer potentially as a service.”

Training huge quantities of video data will help Tesla push the reliability of its software from 100% that of a human driver, to 200% and eventually to “2,000% better than the average human,” Musk said, while again suggesting that it won’t be a technological achievement the company is interested into keeping to themselves.

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