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R&D Roundup: ‘Twisted light’ lasers, prosthetic vision advances and robot-trained dogs

I see far more research articles than I could possibly write up. This column collects the most interesting of those papers and advances, along with notes on why they may prove important in the world of tech and startups.

In this edition: a new type of laser emitter that uses metamaterials, robot-trained dogs, a breakthrough in neurological research that may advance prosthetic vision and other cutting-edge technology.

Twisted laser-starters

We think of lasers as going “straight” because that’s simpler than understanding their nature as groups of like-minded photons. But there are more exotic qualities for lasers beyond wavelengths and intensity, ones scientists have been trying to exploit for years. One such quality is… well, there are a couple names for it: Chirality, vorticality, spirality and so on — the quality of a beam having a corkscrew motion to it. Applying this quality effectively could improve optical data throughput speeds by an order of magnitude.

The trouble with such “twisted light” is that it’s very difficult to control and detect. Researchers have been making progress on this for a couple of years, but the last couple weeks brought some new advances.

First, from the University of the Witwatersrand, is a laser emitter that can produce twisted light of record purity and angular momentum — a measure of just how twisted it is. It’s also compact and uses metamaterials — always a plus.

The second is a pair of matched (and very multi-institutional) experiments that yielded both a transmitter that can send vortex lasers and, crucially, a receiver that can detect and classify them. It’s remarkably hard to determine the orbital angular momentum of an incoming photon, and hardware to do so is clumsy. The new detector is chip-scale and together they can use five pre-set vortex modes, potentially increasing the width of a laser-based data channel by a corresponding factor. Vorticality is definitely on the roadmap for next-generation network infrastructure, so you can expect startups in this space soon as universities spin out these projects.

Tracing letters on the brain-palm

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Volvo to use Luminar’s lidar in production vehicles to unlock automated driving on highways

Volvo Cars will start producing vehicles in 2022 that are equipped with lidar and a perception stack — technology developed by Silicon Valley startup Luminar that the automaker will use to deploy an automated driving system for highways.

For now, the lidar will be part of a hardware package that consumers can add as an option to their Volvo vehicle, starting with the second-generation XC90. Volvo will combine Luminar’s lidar with cameras, radar, software and back-up systems for functions such as steering, braking and battery power to enable its highway pilot feature.

Volvo, which is known for making its advanced safety features standard, sees a bigger opportunity in its partnership with Luminar. The Swedish automaker said Luminar will help it improve advanced driver assistance systems and may lead to all of its second-generation Scalable Product Architecture (SPA2) vehicles to come with lidar as a standard feature.

Luminar and Volvo didn’t reveal how much this highway pilot package might cost. Luminar has previously said its Iris lidar unit will cost less than $1,000 per unit for production vehicles seeking full autonomy and about $500 for version used for more limited purposes like driver assistance.

The announcement is a milestone for Luminar and its whiz founder Austin Russell, who burst onto the autonomous vehicle startup scene in April 2017 after operating for years in secrecy. It also makes Volvo the first automaker to equip production vehicles with lidar — the light detection and ranging radar that measures distance using laser light to generate a highly accurate 3D map of the world around the car.

Luminar’s Iris lidar sensors — which TechCrunch has described as about the size of really thick sandwich and one-third smaller than its previous iterations — will be integrated in the roof. The sensor’s tucked away placement is a departure from the bucket style spinning lidars that have become synonymous with autonomous vehicle development.

Image Credits: Volvo

Shipping a vehicle with the proper hardware and perception stack doesn’t mean customers will be able to let their Volvo take over driving on highways from the get go. The software, which is being developed by Zenuity, is still underway, Volvo CTO Henrik Green said.

The software will be activated wirelessly once it is verified to be safe in individual geographic locations. Volvo will continue to expand the capability of the software such as pushing up the maximum speed a vehicle can travel while driving autonomously. This hardware first-continual software update strategy is similar to Tesla, which has sold an automated driving package to consumers for years that has improved over time, but still does not allow for so-called “full self-driving.”

“Soon, your Volvo will be able to drive autonomously on highways when the car determines it is safe to do so,” Green said. “At that point, your Volvo takes responsibility for the driving and you can relax, take your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel. Over time, updates over the air will expand the areas in which the car can drive itself. For us, a safe introduction of autonomy is a gradual introduction.”

A turning point for lidar

Lidar sensors are considered by many automakers and tech companies an essential piece of technology to safely roll out autonomous vehicles. In the past 18 months, as the timeline to deploy commercial robotaxi fleets has expanded, automakers have turned back to developing nearer term tech for production vehicles.

“It’s a very isolated problem to solve and becomes a lot more solvable in a safe way than trying to solve autonomous driving through the inner city of Los Angeles or San Francisco,” Green said. “By narrowing the use case to those particular highways, we can bring safe autonomy into vehicles for personal use in the timeframe we’re talking about.”

Advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS, that was pushed aside in pursuit of fully autonomous vehicles has become a darling once again. It’s prompted a pivot within the industry, particularly with lidar companies. Dozens of lidar startups once grappling to become the supplier of choice for fully driverless vehicles are now hawking their wares for use in regular old passenger cars, trucks and SUVs. Some lidar startups such as Luminar have developed the perception software as well in an effort to diversify their business and offer a more appealing package to automakers.

The companies will deepen their collaboration to ensure Luminar’s lidar technology is validated for series production. Volvo Cars said it has signed an agreement to possibly increase its minority stake in Luminar.

Luminar built its lidar from scratch, a lengthy process that it says has resulted in a simpler design and better performance. The company made a leap forward in April 2018 with the introduction of a new lidar unit that performs better, is cheaper and is able to be assembled in minutes rather than hours. Luminar also acquired Black Forest Engineering as part of its strategy to improve the quality along with efficiency. And it opened a 136,000-square-foot manufacturing center in Orlando, Florida, where it does all of its engineering and development as well as the mass manufacturing.

The startup has continued to improve its lidar as well as attract investors. Luminar announced last year it had raised $100 million, bringing its total to more than $250 million. The company unveiled a perception platform and its compact Iris lidar unit, which will now go into the Volvo.

“This is really kind of the holy grail that we’ve been working towards for the entire course of the business,” Russell said.

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Gousto, a UK meal-kit service, raises another $41M as business booms under lockdown

Food delivery — be it ready-made restaurant meals, groceries, or anything in between — has seen a huge surge of activity in the last few weeks as people have sheltered in place to slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus. Today, one of the startups that’s built a business specifically in meal-kits in the UK is announcing funding to double down on its growth.

Gousto, a London-based meal-kit service, has closed £33 million ($41 million) in funding, money that it’s going to be using to continue investing in its technology — both in the AI engine that it says customers use to get more personalised recommendations of what to cook and eat, and in the backend tech used to optimise its own logistics and other operations — and in building more capacity to meet rising demand and expanding next-day delivery in the near future (it mainly operates on a three-day turnaround between ordering and delivery currently).

The company said that it’s currently delivering some 4 million meals to 380,000 UK households each month and is on course to cross 400 million meals delivered by 2025. It offers currently a choice of more than 50 recipes each week and gives people the option to tailor what they get, with the whole system running in an automated packing process, working out to average price per meal per person to £2.98 at its cheapest.

The funding — which was being raised before the novel coronavirus hit — is being led by Perwyn, with participation also from BGF Ventures, MMC Ventures and Joe Wicks — a hugely popular YouTube fitness coach who has built a lifestyle brand around healthy eating. This brings the total raised by Gousto to around £130 million ($162 million). It’s not disclosing its valuation with this round. It has 100 employees today and plans to expand that to 700 by 2022.

CTO Shaun Pearce said that Gousto was in high-growth mode before COVID-19, operating on forecasts of growing 70% year-on-year. That number — as with so many other delivery and specifically food-based delivery businesses right now — has spiked upward in recent weeks, not just from paying customers but also for Gousto’s own efforts to do something for the relief efforts, with food businesses like Gousto’s some of the remaining “key” businesses that have been allowed to stay open when others like restaurants have closed.

“We continue to be laser-focused on our vision to become the UK’s most-loved way to eat dinner. This additional investment is not only a validation of our track record, but it is also an endorsement of our strategic vision of the future which is rooted in investing in innovative technology to transform the way we search for, shop for, and cook our food,” said Timo Boldt, CEO and founder, in a statement. “In these challenging times, we want to continue offering people more choice and especially more convenience. We will maintain our close relationships with the government and other charitable partners to ensure those already struggling don’t see their situation worsen.”

In the last several weeks, Pearce said Gousto has also seen big changes in customer behavior from pre-existing customers, with a 28% increase in family boxes. “Those who buy from us want to buy more,” he said. Like some other smaller food delivery companies (and small can be as big as the online grocery Ocado) it’s also no longer accepting new customer sign-ups and is focused just on meeting the demand of pre-existing customers.

Gousto’s has also been trying to do its part in relief operations. It’s been working with the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to produce meal kits for vulnerable people, and it has donated some 6,000 meals to The Trussell Trust foodbank network and to the homeless charity, Shelter. It’s also ensuring that when its system is overcrowded that NHS employees get priority access to its ordering platform. (This is in addition to the contactless and other safety procedures that Pearce said that Gousto has put in place to minimise the risk of spreading the virus both to its workers and customers.)

Meal kit services in recent years have taken a beating in recent years, typified perhaps most publicly by Blue Apron, which saw its stock drop drastically after going public in part because of the huge amount of competition (not just from other pure-play meal kit companies but a plethora of others like Amazon that have added on meal kits to other existing business lines such as other grocery delivery).

Pearce said that Gousto’s growth and popularity and flexibility that it offers users by way of the AI engine to craft recipes they might actually want to use sets it apart from current competition, which in the UK includes HelloFresh, Mindful Chef, offerings from most major grocers, and many more.

“We continue to be impressed by Gousto and its dedication to its customers,” said Andrew Wynn, founder and managing partner at Perwyn, in a statement. “The business has adapted quickly to continue providing an essential service to so many. This reaffirms the decision we took far before COVID-19, that we’re investing in the right people and a business set for even greater success.”

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XYZ Reality secures £5M to bring a hologram headset to the construction industry

Augmented Reality technology did not, it turned out, light the touch paper on a booming new industry. What we got instead was a few cute applications on smartphones and devices like Microsoft’s Hololens, which has seen pretty limited success.
Where AR has proved that it may have a future …

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NASA reveals the payloads for the first commercial Moon cargo deliveries

NASA has finalized the payloads for its first cargo deliveries scheduled to be carried by commercial lunar landers, vehicles created by companies the agency selected to take part in its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. In total, there are 16 different payloads, which consist of a number of difference science experiments and technology experiments, that will be carried by landers built by Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines. Both of these landers are scheduled to launch next year, carrying their cargo to the Moon’s surface and helping prepare the way for NASA’s mission to return humans to the Moon by 2024.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine is set to launch aboard a rocket provided by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), while Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander will make its own lunar trip aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Both landers will carry two of the payloads on the list, including a Laser Retro-Reflector Array (LRA) that is basically a mirror-based precision location device for situating the lander itself; and a Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL) – a laser-based sensor that can provide precision navigation during descent and touchdown. Both of these payloads are being developed by NASA to ensure safe, controlled and specifically targeted landing of spacecraft on the Moon’s surface, and their use here be crucial in building robust lunar landing systems to support Artemis through the return of human astronauts to the Moon and beyond.

Besides those two payloads, everything else on either lander is unique to one vehicle or the other. Astrobotic is carrying more, but its Peregrine lander can hold more cargo – its payload capacity tops out at around 585 lbs, whereas the Nova-C can carry a maximum of 220 lbs. The full list of what each lander will have on board is available below, as detailed by NASA.

Overall, NASA has 14 total contractors that could potentially provide lunar payload delivery services through its CLPS program. That basically amounts to a list of approved vendors, who then bid on whatever contracts the agency has available for this specific need. Other companies on the CLPS list include Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and more. Starting with these two landers next year, NASA hopes to fly around two missions per year each year through the CLPS program.

Astrobotic Payloads

  • Surface Exosphere Alterations by Landers (SEAL): SEAL will investigate the chemical response of lunar regolith to the thermal, physical and chemical disturbances generated during a landing, and evaluate contaminants injected into the regolith by the landing itself. It will give scientists insight into the how a spacecraft landing might affect the composition of samples collected nearby. It is being developed at NASA Goddard.
  • Photovoltaic Investigation on Lunar Surface (PILS): PILS is a technology demonstration that is based on an International Space Station test platform for validating solar cells that convert light to electricity. It will demonstrate advanced photovoltaic high-voltage use for lunar surface solar arrays useful for longer mission durations. It is being developed at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
  • Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS): The LETS radiation sensor will collect information about the lunar radiation environment and relies on flight-proven hardware that flew in space on the Orion spacecraft’s inaugural uncrewed flight in 2014. It is being developed at NASA Johnson.
  • Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System (NIRVSS): NIRVSS will measure surface and subsurface hydration, carbon dioxide and methane – all resources that could potentially be mined from the Moon — while also mapping surface temperature and changes at the landing site. It is being developed at Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.
  • Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo): MSolo will identify low-molecular weight volatiles. It can be installed to either measure the lunar exosphere or the spacecraft outgassing and contamination. Data gathered from MSolo will help determine the composition and concentration of potentially accessible resources. It is being developed at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
  • PROSPECT Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS) for Lunar Surface Volatiles: PITMS will characterize the lunar exosphere after descent and landing and throughout the lunar day to understand the release and movement of volatiles. It was previously developed for ESA’s (European Space Agency) Rosetta mission and is being modified for this mission by NASA Goddard and ESA.
  • Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS): NSS will search for indications of water-ice near the lunar surface by measuring how much hydrogen-bearing materials are at the landing site as well as determine the overall bulk composition of the regolith there. NSS is being developed at NASA Ames.
  • Neutron Measurements at the Lunar Surface (NMLS): NMLS will use a neutron spectrometer to determine the amount of neutron radiation at the Moon’s surface, and also observe and detect the presence of water or other rare elements. The data will help inform scientists’ understanding of the radiation environment on the Moon. It’s based on an instrument that currently operates on the space station and is being developed at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
  • Fluxgate Magnetometer (MAG): MAG will characterize certain magnetic fields to improve understanding of energy and particle pathways at the lunar surface. NASA Goddard is the lead development center for the MAG payload.

Intuitive Machines Payloads

  • Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN-1): LN-1 is a CubeSat-sized experiment that will demonstrate autonomous navigation to support future surface and orbital operations. It has flown on the space station and is being developed at NASA Marshall.
  • Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS): SCALPSS will capture video and still image data of the lander’s plume as the plume starts to impact the lunar surface until after engine shut off, which is critical for future lunar and Mars vehicle designs. It is being developed at NASA Langley, and also leverages camera technology used on the Mars 2020 rover.
  • Low-frequency Radio Observations for the Near Side Lunar Surface (ROLSES): ROLSES will use a low-frequency radio receiver system to determine photoelectron sheath density and scale height. These measurements will aide future exploration missions by demonstrating if there will be an effect on the antenna response or larger lunar radio observatories with antennas on the lunar surface. In addition, the ROLSES measurements will confirm how well a lunar surface-based radio observatory could observe and image solar radio bursts. It is being developed at NASA Goddard.

Source: TechCrunch