Deputy PM: Luxembourg’s Space Mining Mission Begins Tuesday

When Luxembourg’s new law governing space mining comes into force on Tuesday, the country will already be working to make the science-fiction-sounding mission a reality, the deputy prime minister said.

The legislation will make Luxembourg the first country in Europe to offer a legal framework to ensure that private operators can be confident about their rights over resources they extract in space.

The law is based on the premise that space resources are capable of being owned by individuals and private companies and establishes the procedures for authorizing and supervising space exploration missions.

“When I launched the initiative a year ago, people thought I was mad,” Etienne Schneider told Reuters.

“But for us, we see it as a business that has return on investment in the short-term, the medium-term, and the long-term,” said Schneider, who is also Luxembourg’s economy minister.

Luxembourg in June 2016 set aside 200 million euros ($229 million) to fund initiatives aimed at bringing back rare minerals from space.

While that goal is at least 15 years off, new technologies are already creating markets that space mining could supply, said Schneider.

He said firms could soon make carrying materials to refuel or repair satellites economically feasible or supply raw materials to the 3-D printers now being tested on the International Space Station.

Lifting each kilogram of mass from Earth to orbit costs between 10,000 and 15,000 euros ($11,000 to $18,000), according to Schneider, but firms could cut these costs by recycling the debris of old satellites and rocket parts floating in space.

The small European country, best known for its fund management and private banking sector, will on Tuesday begin the work of making such deals, with the security of a legal framework in place, said Schneider.

Luxembourg has already managed to attract significant interest from pioneers in the field such as U.S. operators Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, and aims to attract research and development projects to set up there.

A similar package of laws was introduced in the United States in 2015 but only applies to companies majority owned by Americans, while Luxembourg’s laws will only require the company to have an office in the country.

“I am already in discussions with fund owners for more than 1 billion euros which they want to dedicate to space exploration over here in Luxembourg,” Schneider said. “In 10 years, I’m quite sure that the official language in space will be Luxembourgish.”


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Chemical Industry and US Call for Global Culture of Chemical Security

Securing petrochemical plants and keeping chemicals out of the hands of terrorists were the topics of discussion at a recent Chemical Sector Security Summit in Houston, Texas. Security experts say the countries that are producing chemicals are shifting and that is one of many reasons developed and developing nations need to share best security practices. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee reports from Houston, a petrochemical hub in the United States.


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Crocodile Industry Hopes to Boost Australia Aboriginal Communities

The crocodile industry in Australia’s Northern Territory, a new report says, is worth more than four times the previous estimate of US $80 million. Officials hope the findings will give poorer aboriginal communities the chance to develop crocodile farming industries.

The saltwater creature is the world’s largest reptile. In Australia, they were once hunted to the brink of extinction, mainly for their skins, which were used to make durable leather goods and clothes.

They have been a protected species since the early 1970s, and their numbers in Australia’s tropical north have soared.

Economic opportunities

The Northern Territory regional government now sees economic opportunities for indigenous communities, where officials want to see an expansion of crocodile egg collection programs.

The eggs would help to stock crocodile farms owned by aboriginal groups, or traditional owners of land, which would supply reptile skins to big fashion houses including Louis Vuitton and Gucci, as well as supplying crocodile meat.

“We are looking at direct investments into rangers to make sure that we see on country a growth in the crocodile industry, so the harvesting of eggs, the growing of the crocodile locally and remotely, which is a very important and valuable use of traditional country done by traditional owners,” said Michael Gunner, the Northern Territory’s chief minister.

Hunting for sport?

An independent Australian MP, Bob Katter, has said that as crocodile numbers increase, so does the threat to people. He believes big game trophy hunters should be allowed to shoot them for sport. Katter has argued that crocodile safaris would boost the incomes of indigenous communities.

While the Northern Territory government supports crocodile safaris, the final decision rests with Australia’s federal government, which has refused to allow them. Conservationists have insisted that the shooting of iconic animals for profit in Australia is abhorrent and should never be allowed.


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Apple Accused of Bowing to Chinese Censors

Apple, Inc. has confirmed that it is removing some applications providing virtual personal networks, or VPNs, from its China App Store, to comply with new Chinese regulations — a move critics say is capitulating to internet censorship.

Apple confirmed the move in an email to National Public Radio on Saturday, after several VPN providers announced that their apps had been removed from the China App Store.

Software made outside China can sometimes be used to get around China’s domestic internet firewalls that block content that the government finds objectionable. Critics call China’s “great firewall” one of the world’s most advanced censorship systems.

VPN apps pulled

“Earlier this year,” Apple said, “China’s MIIT [Ministry of Industry and Information Technology] announced that all developers offering VPNs must obtain a license from the government. We have been required to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations.”

App maker Express VPN said in a blog post that its app was removed from the China Apple Store, and it noted that “preliminary research indicates that all major VPN apps for iOS [Apple operating systems] have been removed.”

The statement continued, “We’re disappointed in this development, as it represents the most drastic measure the Chinese government has taken to block the use of VPNs to date, and we are troubled to see Apple aiding China’s censorship efforts.”

Another company, Star VPN, also announced it had been contacted by Apple with the same notice.

China successful

Golden Frog, a company that makes security software, told the New York Times that its app also had been taken down from the China App Store.

“We gladly filed an amicus brief in support of Apple and their backdoor encryption battle with the FBI, so we are extremely disappointed that Apple has bowed to pressure from China to remove VPN apps without citing any Chinese law or regulation that makes VPN illegal,” said Sunday Yokubaitis, president of the company.

The Times reports that this is the first time China has successfully used its influence with a major foreign technology platform such as Apple, to flex its muscle with software makers.

China is Apple’s largest market outside the United States.


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Silicon Valley’s Hot Café: Where Digirati Pitch Ideas Over Venezuelan Coffee

Silicon Valley is the tech industry’s epicenter, but what is the epicenter of Silicon Valley?

It might just be Coupa Café in downtown Palo Alto, Calif.

For the tech community, this café is a meeting place of the who’s who of Silicon Valley, where the likes of the late Steve Jobs of Apple, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google co-founder Sergey Brin have all been spotted. Up-and-coming startup founders are able to buy their lattes with the digital currency Bitcoin before their pitch sessions with leading industry venture capitalists.

The café is so well known among techies that a cup with the Coupa logo was featured as a prop in the 2010 film The Social Network.

“I remember seeing Mark Zuckerberg sitting here and having meetings and people coming up,” said Eric Sokol, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University.

While Silicon Valley is famous for companies such as Facebook, Twitter and other billion-dollar empires built in cyberspace, some folks in the valley still believe real-world human connections can make a difference.

Making connections

Just from frequenting the café, Sokol says, he became an adviser to a health care related startup and a new venture capitalist fund. Both came about when other patrons at the café overheard conversations he was having, he said.

That’s the kind of “crazy nest of connections” that can occur at Coupa, he said.

The Venezuelan-born Jean Paul Coupal founded the café with his mother and sister in 2004 with the hopes of bringing a bit of his homeland to Silicon Valley — Venezuelan coffee, crepes and Venezuelan arepas. The family puts its touch on all aspects of the business — Coupal’s sister and mother personally painted each of the eight cafés.

While the beautifully decorated walls and rich cuisine may be what initially attracted the tech community, the café’s tech focus has kept it in the vanguard of this café-saturated region.

In 2013, Coupa Cafe began accepting Bitcoins, a digital payment system, allowing customers to pay for their lattes and arepas with the currency.

“We want to be part of the technology,” Coupal said.

The pre-office

And there’s another perk: The café allows patrons to stay all day, which makes it attractive for entrepreneurs who are in the pre-office-space stage.

“A lot of the startups in the area come and they like to work at Coupa, coding all day,” Coupal said. “We’ve seen a lot of products that got developed at Coupa.”

With Stanford and other colleges nearby, the possibility of a life-changing chance encounter is not lost on local students interested in tech.

“I am currently teaching myself JavaScript here at Coupa right now,” said Katie Kennedy, a local community college student. “If someone happened to look over my shoulder and saw what I was doing, I would definitely not say no to any help.”

Now, there are eight Coupa Cafe locations. This one, the original on Ramona Street, is in a building from the 1930s.

“The food’s good, the coffee’s good,” Sokol said. “I wish I had stock, but I don’t in Coupa. And I don’t know, it just has the right atmosphere, the right mix of people. It’s got an energy about it, I guess.”

Cafe Coupa shows that being at the right place at the right time can change a café’s fate as much as a techie’s life.


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Silicon Valley’s Hot Cafe: Where Digirati Pitch Ideas Over Venezuelan Coffee

There’s a café in the heart of Silicon Valley where the biggest names in tech are known to take their lattes, attracting startup founders who frantically make their pitches to the venture capitalists holding court at the wooden tables. Coupa Café in Palo Alto, California, has a certain electric buzz, as Deana Mitchell reports.


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Mainstream Model 3 Could Make or Break Tesla Dreams

For Tesla, everything is riding on the Model 3.

The electric car company’s newest vehicle was delivered to its first 30 customers, all Tesla employees, Friday evening. Its $35,000 starting price, half the cost of Tesla’s previous models, and range of up to 310 miles (498 km) could bring hundreds of thousands of customers into the automaker’s fold, taking it from a niche luxury brand to the mainstream. Around 500,000 people worldwide have reserved a Model 3.

Those higher sales could finally make Tesla profitable and accelerate its plans for future products like SUVs and pickups.

Or the Model 3 could dash Tesla’s dreams.

Much could go wrong

Potential customers could lose faith if Tesla doesn’t meet its aggressive production schedule, or if the cars have quality problems that strain Tesla’s small service network. 

The compact Model 3 may not entice a global market that’s increasingly shifting to SUVs, including all-electric SUVs from Audi and others going on sale soon. And a fully loaded Model 3 with 310 miles of range costs a hefty $59,500; the base model goes 220 miles (322 km) on a charge.

Limits on the $7,500 U.S. tax credit for electric cars could also hurt demand. Once an automaker sells 200,000 electric cars in the U.S., the credit phases out. Tesla has sold more than 126,000 vehicles since 2008, according to estimates by WardsAuto, so not everyone who buys a Model 3 will be eligible.

“There are more reasons to think that it won’t be successful than it will,” says Karl Brauer, the executive publisher for Cox Automotive, which owns Autotrader and other car buying sites.

Always part of Tesla plans

The Model 3 has long been part of Palo Alto, California-based Tesla’s plans. In 2006, three years after the company was founded, CEO Elon Musk said Tesla would eventually build “affordably priced family cars” after establishing itself with high-end vehicles like the Model S, which starts at $69,500. This will be the first time many Tesla workers will be able to afford a Tesla.

“It was never our goal to make expensive cars. We wanted to make a car everyone could buy,” Musk said Friday. “If you’re trying to make a difference in the world, you also need to make cars people can afford.”

Tesla started taking reservations for the Model 3 in March 2016. Musk said more than 500,000 people have put down a $1,000 deposit for the car. People ordering a car now likely won’t get it until late 2018. Cars will go first to employees and customers on the West Coast; overseas deliveries start late next year, and right-hand drive versions come in 2019.

Challenges to deliver

But carmaking has proved a challenge to Musk. Both the Model S and the Model X SUV were delayed and then plagued with pesky problems, like doors that don’t work and blank screens in their high-tech dashboards.

Tesla’s luxury car owners might overlook those problems because they liked the thrill of being early adopters. But mainstream buyers will be less forgiving.

“This will be their primary vehicle, so they will have high expectations of quality and durability and expect everything to work every time,” said Sam Abuelsamid, a senior researcher with Navigant Research.

The Model 3 was designed to be much simpler and cheaper to make than Tesla’s previous vehicles. It has one dashboard screen, not two, and no fancy door handles. It’s made primarily of steel, not aluminum. It has no instrument panel; the speed limit and other information normally there can be found on the center screen. It doesn’t even have a key fob; drivers can open and lock the car with a smartphone or a credit cardlike key.

‘Manufacturing hell’

Still, Musk said he’s expecting “at least six months of manufacturing hell” as the Model 3 ramps up to full production. Musk wants to be making 20,000 Model 3s per month by December at the carmaker’s Fremont factory.

Musk aims to make 500,000 vehicles next year, a number that could help Tesla finally make money. The company has only had two profitable quarters since it went public in 2010. But even at that pace, Tesla will remain a small player. Toyota Motor Corp. made more than 10 million vehicles last year.

Abuelsamid said even if it doesn’t meet its ambitious targets, Tesla has done more than anyone to promote electric vehicles.

“A decade ago they were a little more than golf carts. Now all of a sudden, EVs are real, practical vehicles that can be used for anything,” he said.


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Chemical Industry and U.S. Call for Global Culture of Chemical Security

Securing petrochemical plants and keeping chemicals out of the hands of terrorists were the topics of discussion at a recent Chemical Sector Security Summit in Houston, Texas. Security experts say the countries that are producing chemicals are shifting and that is one of many reasons developed and developing nations need to share best security practices. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee reports from Houston, a petrochemical hub in the United States.


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Hackers Scour Voting Machines for Election Bugs

Hackers attending this weekend’s Def Con hacking convention in Las Vegas were invited to break into voting machines and voter databases in a bid to uncover vulnerabilities that could be exploited to sway election results.

The 25-year-old conference’s first “hacker voting village” opened on Friday as part of an effort to raise awareness about the threat of election results being altered through hacking.

Hackers crammed into a crowded conference room for the rare opportunity to examine and attempt to hack some 30 pieces of election equipment, much of it purchased over eBay, including some voting machines and digital voter registries that are currently in use.

Showdown between hackers

“We encourage you to do stuff that if you did on election day they would probably arrest you,” said Johns Hopkins computer scientist Matt Blaze, who organized the segment in a conference room at the Caesar’s Palace convention center.

The exercise featured a “cyber range” simulator where blue teams were tasked with defending a mock local election system from red team hackers.

Concerns about election hacking have surged since U.S. intelligence agencies claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the hacking of Democratic Party emails to help Republican Donald Trump win the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Russians targeted 21 state elections

A Department of Homeland Security official told Congress in June that Russian hackers had targeted 21 U.S. state election systems in the 2016 presidential race and a small number were breached, but there was no evidence that any votes had been manipulated.

Russia has denied the accusations.

Jake Braun, another organizer, said he believed the hacker voting village would convince participants that hacking could be used to sway an election.

“There’s been a lot of claims that our election system is unhackable. That’s BS,” said Braun. “Only a fool or liar would try to claim that their database or machine was unhackable.”

Call for paper ballots

Barbara Simons, president of advocacy group Verified Voting, said she expects Russia to try to influence the U.S. 2018 midterm election and 2020 elections. To counter such threats, she called for requiring use of paper ballots and mandatory auditing computers to count them.

More than 20,000 people were expected to attend the three-day Def Con convention.

The hacker voting village was one of about a dozen interactive areas where participants could study and practice hacking in fields such as automobiles, cryptology and healthcare.

 


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Honolulu Targets ‘Smartphone Zombies’ With Crosswalk Ban

A ban on pedestrians looking at mobile phones or texting while crossing the street will take effect in Hawaii’s largest city in late October, as Honolulu becomes the first major U.S. city to pass legislation aimed at reducing injuries and deaths from “distracted walking.”

The ban comes as cities around the world grapple with how to protect “smartphone zombies” from injuring themselves by stepping into traffic or running into stationary objects.

Starting October 25, a Honolulu pedestrian can be fined between $15 and $99, depending on the number of times police catch him looking at a phone or tablet device as he crosses a street, Mayor Kirk Caldwell told reporters gathered near one of the city’s busiest downtown intersections Thursday.

“We hold the unfortunate distinction of being a major city with more pedestrians being hit in crosswalks, particularly our seniors, than almost any other city in the county,” Caldwell said. Honolulu data on distracted-walking incidents were not immediately available.

Caldwell signed the legislation Thursday after it was passed in a 7-2 vote by the City Council earlier this month, city records show.

People making calls for emergency services are exempt from the ban.

Injury toll

More than 11,000 injuries resulted from phone-related distraction while walking in the United States between 2000 and 2011, according to a University of Maryland study published in 2015.

The findings pushed the nonprofit National Safety Council to add “distracted walking” to its annual compilation of the biggest risks for unintentional injuries and deaths in the United States, highlighting the severity of the issue.

“Cellphones are not just pervading our roadways but pervading our sidewalks, too,” Maureen Vogel, a spokeswoman for the council, said in a phone interview on Friday.

Efforts to save pedestrians from their phones extend beyond America’s shores. London has experimented with padding lamp posts to soften the blow for distracted walkers, according to the Independent newspaper.

In Germany, the city of Augsburg last year embedded traffic signals into the ground near tram tracks to help downward-fixated pedestrians avoid injury, local media reported.

Opponents of the Honolulu law argued it infringes on personal freedom and amounts to government overreach.

“Scrap this intrusive bill, provide more education to citizens about responsible electronics usage, and allow law enforcement to focus on larger issues,” resident Ben Robinson told the City Council in written testimony.


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US Treasury’s Mnuchin Extends Debt Limit Measure for Two Months

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Friday said he would extend for two more months one of the extraordinary cash management measures that the Treasury is using to stave off a debt-limit default.

Mnuchin said in a letter to House of Representative Speaker Paul Ryan that he would continue to withhold investments from the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund, until Sept. 29.

The Treasury’s previous “debt issuance suspension period” for the federal employee pension fund was due to expire on Friday.

Mnuchin had to take the step because Congress has not passed an extension or increase in the federal debt limit, and the Treasury needs to withhold funds from the pension fund in order to preserve its borrowing capacity. It has taken several similar measures since the last extension of the debt limit expired in March at just under $20 trillion.

Mnuchin urged lawmakers this week to act on the borrowing limit before their August recess, but his request fell on deaf ears. The House of Representatives is on recess until Sept. 5.

Mnuchin and fiscal watchdog groups have estimated that the Treasury will fully exhaust its remaining borrowing capacity in October, raising the risk that the United States cannot meet all of its payment obligations with incoming tax revenue.

The Treasury is required by law to make the pension fund whole, including interest, when the debt limit is increased.

In testimony before the House Financial Services Committee on Thursday, Mnuchin said that Congress’ budgeting process, including the role the debt limit plays, “needs to be looked at.”

“I’m all for [that] there should be very strong controls of spending money. But once we’ve agreed to spend the money, we should make sure that the government can pay for it,” Mnuchin said.


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IMF Says Dollar Overvalued, but Euro, Yen in Line With Fundamentals

The International Monetary Fund on Friday said that the U.S. dollar was overvalued by 10 percent to 20 percent, based on U.S. near-term economic fundamentals, while it viewed valuations of the euro, Japan’s yen and China’s yuan as broadly in line with fundamentals.

The IMF’s External Sector Report, an annual assessment of currencies and external surpluses and deficits of major economies, showed that external current account deficits were becoming more concentrated in certain advanced economies such as the United States and Britain, while surpluses remained persistent in China and Germany.

While the report assessed the euro’s valuation as appropriate for the eurozone as a whole, it said the euro’s real effective exchange rate was 10 percent to 20 percent too low for Germany’s fundamentals, given its high current account surplus.

Britain’s pound, meanwhile, was assessed as up to 15 percent overvalued compared with fundamentals, which include a high level of uncertainty over Britain’s post-Brexit trading relationship with the European Union.

The fund said the dollar’s appreciation in recent years was based on its relatively stronger growth outlook, interest rate hikes versus looser monetary policy in the eurozone and Japan, as well as expectations for fiscal stimulus from President Donald Trump’s administration.

But so far this year, the dollar index, the broad measure of its value against other major currencies, is down more than 8 percent and is off to the worst start to a year since 2002.

The IMF recommended that U.S. authorities take steps to shrink a current account deficit that remains too large, by reducing its federal budget deficit and passing structural reforms to increase the savings rate and improve the economy’s productivity.

“It’s important to address imbalances, because if they’re not dealt with appropriately and through the right policies, we could have a backlash in the form of protectionism,” IMF Research Division Chief Luis Cubeddu told a news conference.

No automatic fix

Cubeddu said that the persistence of current account surpluses in export countries such as China and the growth of deficits in debtor countries such as the United States suggested that the problem would not clear up automatically.

“That is, prices, savings and investment decisions don’t seem to be adjusting fast enough to correct imbalances. This partly reflects rigid currency arrangements, but also certain structural features, like inadequate safety nets, barriers to investment, which leads to undesirable levels of savings and investment,” he said.

The report said that while China’s yuan was broadly in line with its fundamentals, IMF models showed wide divergences with desired policies, from a 10 percent overvaluation to a 10 percent undervaluation due to uncertainties over Beijing’s policy outlook.

The U.S. Treasury in April refrained from declaring China a currency manipulator despite Trump’s campaign promises to do so, citing Beijing’s interventions last year to prop up the yuan’s value in the face of capital outflows. But it kept China, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany and Switzerland on a monitoring list for large external surpluses.

The IMF said China’s current account surplus was growing again after declining in 2015 and 2016 and needed to be reduced.

This should be achieved by rebalancing the economy away from investment and credit growth toward more consumption, with a stronger safety net, reforms to state-owned enterprises and opening Chinese markets to foreign competition.

The report also showed that the IMF considers Mexico’s peso and South Korea’s won both to be undervalued by 5 percent to 15 percent compared with their fundamentals. The fund said it expected Mexico’s undervaluation to reverse as risks of protectionist U.S. policies dissipated, but that South Korea needed to stimulate domestic demand to reduce a large current account surplus.


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Tesla Stock Climbs as Musk Prepares to Hand Over First Model 3 Cars

Shares of Tesla rose nearly 1 percent on Friday ahead of a handover to customers of its first Model 3 sedans, the electric cars that Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk is betting will propel his company into the mass market.

Tesla is counting on the Model 3 to help turn the cash-losing company into a profitable one, and its event later on Friday at its factory in Fremont, California, comes as the car maker’s stock trades down 12 percent from a record high set in June.

Fueled by expectations that Tesla will become a carbon-free energy and transportation heavyweight, Tesla’s stock remains up 58 percent year to date, but it is also a favorite among short sellers.

Designed for easy production

Shorts sellers have about $8.5 billion bet against Tesla, equivalent to about 20 percent of the company’s float, according to Astec Analytics.

The $35,000 Model 3 is designed for easy production, with output targeted to reach 20,000 per month by December. The Silicon Valley car company aims to quickly ramp up its factory to reach a production target of 500,000 cars per year in 2018.

Tesla’s last launch was the luxury Model X SUV in 2015, which had a number of production issues.

Investors eager for update

Tesla reports its second-quarter results on Wednesday, and investors are keen for an update on how quickly its output is expanding after deliveries for the first half of 2017 came in at the low end of the company’s own forecast.

“This evening’s event will keep investors focused on the Model 3 ramp, and less on the upcoming quarter,” Barclays analyst Brian Johnson wrote in a note to clients. Johnson has a an “underweight” rating on Tesla.

Skeptics believe Tesla’s growth targets are unrealistic and that it is at risk of being overtaken by General Motors, BMW and other deep-pocketed manufacturers that are ramping up their own electric-vehicle offerings.

The stock was up 0.86 percent at $337.33.


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Roomba Vacuum Maker iRobot Betting Big on ‘Smart’ Home

The Roomba robotic vacuum has been whizzing across floors for years, but its future may lie more in collecting data than dirt.

That data is of the spatial variety: the dimensions of a room as well as distances between sofas, tables, lamps and other home furnishings. To a tech industry eager to push “smart” homes controlled by a variety of Internet-enabled devices, that space is the next frontier.

Smart home lighting, thermostats and security cameras are already on the market, but Colin Angle, chief executive of Roomba maker iRobot Corp., says they are still dumb when it comes to understanding their physical environment. He thinks the mapping technology currently guiding top-end Roomba models could change that and is basing the company’s strategy on it.

“There’s an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home that the user has allowed to be shared,” said Angle.

That vision has its fans, from investors to the likes of Amazon.com, Apple and Alphabet, who are all pushing artificially intelligent voice assistants as smart home interfaces. According to financial research firm IHS Markit, the market for smart home devices was worth $9.8 billion in 2016 and is projected to grow 60 percent this year.

Map sharing

Angle told Reuters that iRobot, which made Roomba compatible with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant in March, could reach a deal to share its maps for free with customer consent to one or more of the Big Three in the next couple of years. Angle added the company could extract value from those agreements by connecting for free with as many companies as possible to make the device more useful in the home.

Amazon declined to comment, and Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment.

So far investors have cheered Angle’s plans, sending iRobot stock soaring to $102 in mid-June from $35 a year ago, giving it a market value of nearly $2.5 billion on 2016 revenue of $660 million.

But there are headwinds for iRobot’s approach, ranging from privacy concerns to a rising group of mostly cheaper competitors — such as the $300 Bissell SmartClean and the $270 Hoover Quest 600 — which are threatening to turn a once-futuristic product into a commoditized home appliance.

Low-cost Roomba rivals were the subject of a report by short-seller Ben Axler of Spruce Point Capital Management, which sent the stock down 20 percent to $84 at the end of June.

The company’s smart home vision has helped bring around some former critics. Willem Mesdag, managing partner of hedge fund Red Mountain Capital — who led an unsuccessful proxy fight against Angle last year and wound up selling his iRobot shares — is now largely supportive of the company’s direction.

“I think they have a tremendous first-mover advantage,” said Mesdag, who thinks iRobot would be a great acquisition for one of the Big Three. “The competition is focused on making cleaning products, not a mapping robot.”

Military beginnings

Founded in 1990, iRobot saw early success building bomb disposal robots for the U.S. Army before launching the world’s first “robovac” in 2002. The company sold off its military unit last year to focus on the consumer sector, and says the Roomba — which ranges in price from $375 to $899 — still has 88 percent of the U.S. robovac market.

All robovacs use short-range infrared or laser sensors to detect and avoid obstacles, but iRobot in 2015 added a camera, new sensors and software to its flagship 900-series Roomba that gave it the ability to build a map while keeping track of its own location within that map.

So-called simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) technology right now enables Roomba, and other higher-end robovacs made by Dyson and other rivals, to do things like stop vacuuming, head back to its dock to recharge and then return to the same spot to finish the job.

Guy Hoffman, a robotics professor at Cornell University, said detailed spatial mapping technology would be a “major breakthrough” for the smart home.

Right now, smart home devices operate “like a tourist in New York who never leaves the subway,” said Hoffman. “There is some information about the city, but the tourist is missing a lot of context for what’s happening outside of the stations.”

With regularly updated maps, Hoffman said, sound systems could match home acoustics, air conditioners could schedule airflow by room, and smart lighting could adjust according to the position of windows and time of day.

Companies like Amazon, Google and Apple could also use the data to recommend home goods for customers to buy, said Hoffman.

Privacy concerns

One potential downside is that sharing data about users’ homes raises clear privacy issues, said Ben Rose, an analyst who covers iRobot for Battle Road Research. Customers could find it “sort of a scary thing,” he said.

Angle said iRobot would not be sharing data without its customers’ permission, but he expressed confidence most would give their consent in order to access the smart home functions.

Another Roomba risk is that cheaper cleaning products are what consumers really want. In May, The New York Times’ Sweethome blog dethroned the $375 Roomba 690 as its most-recommended robovac in favor of the $220 Eufy RoboVac 11, saying the connectivity and other advanced features of the former would not justify the greater cost for most users.

Short-seller Axler’s June report caused a stir mostly with its prediction that value-priced appliance maker SharkNinja Operating LLC could launch a robovac by year’s end. SharkNinja declined to comment.

One potential iRobot bulwark against these new competitors: a portfolio of 1,000 patents worldwide covering the very concept of a self-navigating household robot vacuum as well as basic technologies like object avoidance.

A handful of those patents are now being tested in a series of patent infringement lawsuits iRobot filed in April against Bissell, Stanley Black & Decker, Hoover Inc., Chinese outsourced manufacturers and other robovac makers. The litigation is the most significant in iRobot’s history.

A lawyer for Hoover declined to comment. Lawyers for Bissell and Stanley Black & Decker did not respond to requests for comment.

The patents are a “huge part of our competitive moat,” Angle said. “It is getting really hard not to step on our intellectual property.”


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New York Startups Shine Light on New Paths for World Cities

Snapping off a leaf of crisp baby lettuce, entrepreneur Andrew Shearer can demonstrate how colored lights in a hydroponic cabinet boost nutrients or alter the flavors and colors of plants that can be grown in a restaurant kitchen.

Strawberries, peppers and tomatoes are the next crops for his start-up Farmshelf, which aims to cut food miles and waste by selling the lighting units to grow vegetables for commercial use, home kitchens and even mobile vans.

“Going the next step, changing the way the food supply system can work for the highly perishable items that often end up in the landfill,” said Shearer, 27, at the New Lab workspace at Brooklyn Navy Yard (BNYDC).

Farmshelf is one of 95 companies at New Lab in the former shipyard, home to firms such as Honeybee Robotics, which makes arms for Mars rovers and mouse-sized robots, and Spacial, where one of its drone blimps hangs from the ceiling.

Cities around the world are looking to BNYDC for inspiration as they struggle to replace declining industrial jobs with well-paid alternatives while regenerating areas left vacant and neglected by dying industries.

Once a thriving center on New York City’s East River employing 70,000 people, Brooklyn’s waterfront fell into dereliction as the shipbuilding business shut down, said David Ehrenberg, BNYDC chief executive.

Packs of feral dogs would chase prospective tenants away as efforts at a revamp got underway, he said.

Fifteen years later, the yard is home to 330 companies and employs 7,000 people in what has become a hip neighborhood dotted with housing projects and chic apartment buildings.

BNYDC partners with struggling local schools to get children interested in fields such as robotics and internships or jobs with one of the cutting-edge companies, Ehrenberg said.

“If things work out well, other cities can end up where we’ve ended up, he said.

Alongside entrepreneurs developing nanotechnology or designing kinetic furniture, other companies at BNYDC are creating hundreds of blue-collar jobs, which urban experts say is key to making communities economically resilient.

At Steiner Studios, where the hit HBO series “Girls” was filmed, more than half the employees work in jobs such as on-set carpenters or electricians.

Crye Protection employs more than 200 people, many of whom sew specialized camouflage gear and bendable body armor.

To be resilient, “any city can’t be over reliant on a single industry, whether that be Rotterdam and the port, New Orleans and petrochemicals, New York and finance,” said Michael Berkowitz, president of the 100 Resilient Cities program.

The Rockefeller Foundation-backed $164 million program aims to help urban areas protect themselves from stresses and shocks.

“There’ no one magic bullet,” Berkowitz said.

For cities such as Glasgow in Scotland, once the world’s biggest shipbuilder, a challenge is making growth inclusive as it looks to fill the space left vacant by industry and find new ways to use existing manufacturing skills.

“We’re looking at the diversification of our economy. We’re too dependant on bashing metal. But those same engineering skills and links to universities are ones we can use again,” said Duncan Booker, chief resilience officer for Glasgow. “We’re not going to get that mass employment again, but we can get lots of lots of clusters of smaller companies and some of the larger manufacturing companies and utilities to take on people,” he said.

Repurposing a one million-square foot (305,000 square meters) of space for entrepreneurs seeking solutions to flooding and climate change is an option being considered in New Orleans as the city tries to shift away from dependence on the petrochemical industry.

“For us, it’s also about transitioning our people from the oil economy to the blue and green economy of the future,” said Jeff Hebert, chief resilience officer and deputy mayor of New Orleans, using terms used to describe sustainable ocean and environmental practices.

“The most important part for us is to make sure we are training the people of the city, not just kids … but people who are currently unemployed or underemployed so they can take advantage of innovations in the new economy,” he said.

Although cities with fewer resources may struggle to replicate the success of Brooklyn, diversifying economies and nurturing innovation can pay off, said experts.

“You can’t pick the winner,” said Ehrenberg. “You need to create the basic environment and the basic infrastructure and then let the market sort out who had the best idea, and then be ready to capture those jobs when they’re finally created.”


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Government, Industry Officials Call for Global Culture of Chemical Security

The east side of Houston is dotted with what look like skyscrapers from a distance, but are actually chemical plants, key parts of the Gulf Coast city’s economy.

“Houston, here in Texas, is in many ways the center of the petrochemical industry universe in the United States, so [there are] a very large number of chemical facilities, oil refineries,” said Dave Wolf, acting deputy assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.   

Houston was the site of the 2017 Chemical Sector Security Summit, a three-day event ending Friday. Co-sponsored by DHS and the Chemical Sector Coordinating Council, composed of chemical industry trade associations, the summit is an event for sharing best practices related to securing chemical sites.

“We see terrorists globally continuing to seek out and actually use chemicals of this sort. … They are using these in improvised explosive devices, among other things. They are using them in dispersion devices for toxic inhalation,” Wolf said.

He pointed to examples such as the terrorist attack at the Brussels airport and metro station in 2016 and the 2015 attack in Lyon, France, where a terrorist drove into a chemical plant and caused an explosion.

Staying a step ahead

“Our challenge is always [to] be one step ahead, understanding what technology is coming, what’s here,” and then “to mitigate any of those threats or risks,” said Gary Scheibe, security manager at Shell Deer Park refinery in Deer Park, Texas.

Wolf said it is not just chemical plants that could be targets for terrorists.

“We are talking about fisheries, wineries, breweries, semiconductor fabrication sites, food-processing plants” and more, he said.

In 2007, the federal government established security regulations, known as the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, that apply to chemical plants, electricity generation stations, refineries and other high-risk facilities, and it works with such facilities to develop site security plans.

Security experts said building a global culture of chemical security is key to keeping chemicals out of the hands of bad actors.

“No state can afford to ignore chemical security. States who have done so often find that they regret that decision later,” said Peter Newport, director of security with the International Chemical Trade Association.

Traditionally, much of the chemicals have been produced in developed regions such as the U.S. and Europe, but developing nations such as China and India are stepping up production, said Krzysztof Paturej, president of the board of the International Centre for Chemical Safety and Security in Warsaw. He said Iran is a country where more production is also expected.

Paturej said it makes good economic as well as security sense for chemical producers to focus on having high security standards.

“If you want to go global, you have to apply the best standards, and the best standards are in developed countries and especially [the] United States,” said Paturej.

Regardless of the country, security experts said chemical facilities hold symbolic and economic significance, so they become high-value targets for terrorists.


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