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Urban Sky’s Earth-imaging stratospheric ‘microballoons’ are ready for a close-up

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Urban Sky, a Colorado-based company focused on collecting images and data of the Earth using small stratospheric balloons, says it is officially entering commercial operations after three years of operating partly in stealth and raising funding. The company says it is ready to start serving customers with its balloons, which can be deployed from the back of a pickup truck and ascend into the sky in just minutes.

Specifically, the company offers what it calls “microballoons,” high-altitude balloons that can float to the stratosphere carrying a small payload and maintain a constant position over an area. About the size of a Volkswagen bus at launch, these balloons ultimately inflate to be the size of a small car garage in the air. That’s much smaller than a typical stratospheric balloon, which could engulf an entire football stadium when fully inflated.

Urban Sky envisions its technology being used for things like real-time wildfire monitoring, environmental changes, storm-related property damage, and more at a lower cost than comparable satellite imagery. After conducting roughly 50 flight tests, Urban Sky’s founders say they are ready to start deploying their product regularly, offering imagery with resolution of 10 centimeters per pixel. “We’re at a technology maturity level, where if a customer calls us and says, ‘I want imagery over this area in the Rocky Mountain region,’ we can deploy and go get it,” Andrew Antonio, co-founder and CEO of Urban Sky, tells The Verge.

The company’s origins can be traced back to a program called StratEx, a plan hatched by former Google executive Alan Eustace which resulted in him performing the world’s highest skydive from underneath a stratospheric balloon. Antonio and Urban Sky co-founder Jared Leidich worked on the project together, which first introduced them to stratospheric balloons. During development, the team would often fly smaller balloons equipped with GoPros next to the more massive balloons for monitoring.

“We were launching these really small balloons next to these enormous balloons,” Leidich says. “I kind of saw this side-by-side comparison of what it’s like to launch a balloon [with a] payload the size of a shoe box, and what it’s like to launch a balloon [with a payload] that’s the size of a person or the size of a car.”

Antonio and Leidich eventually moved on to World View, a company aimed at using larger stratospheric balloons for Earth monitoring and eventually sending tourists to the stratosphere on leisurely joyrides. Ultimately the pair broke away to form their own high-altitude balloon company with the goal of mimicking the trajectory of the satellite industry, where payloads have miniaturized over the last couple of decades. Companies like Planet and Spire have developed entire constellations for Earth imaging and monitoring using CubeSats, small standardized satellites about the size of a shoebox. With Urban Sky, they wanted to do the same for the stratosphere.

But they immediately ran into technical challenges, according to Leidich. “We thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was,” he says. “We thought that we could just sort of make everything smaller, and it would work. And initially, it did not work.” To maintain a stable position in the sky, stratospheric balloons rely on ducting systems that let gas out of the balloon at altitude. Shrinking that system down turned out to be incredibly difficult, and a lot of the company’s early balloons descended prematurely. They also experimented with the shape of the balloon to make sure it floated and stabilized as they wanted. And plenty of work focused on miniaturizing the optical sensing equipment so that it could fit into a payload the size of a shoebox.

They eventually came up with their final microballoon product, which can carry imaging and data-collecting payloads weighing no more than six pounds. The balloons can sit anywhere between 17 and 21 kilometers high, staying stable within tens of meters, according to Urban Sky. The company says that customers need to give roughly 24 hours’ notice to plan for a dedicated mission, which is also dependent on good weather. One mission typically will last between four to seven hours. When the mission is over, the balloons can be retrieved and used again, which isn’t always the case for stratospheric balloons.

Ultimately, Urban Sky wants to be very nimble with its system, launching more and more frequently as they move ahead. “We want to experiment with higher refresh rates,” Antonio says.

Because these balloons are meant to be retrieved, there are some limitations on where they can be deployed. Urban Sky doesn’t plan to launch over areas of international conflict, for example. But the company says the balloons are capable of launching anywhere from land, with plans to eventually launch from over water. Right now, they’re operating in Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Nebraska, with plans to expand throughout the US. Urban Sky isn’t releasing what it costs to operate its system but says that pricing for its imagery starts at $6 per square kilometer.

They’re aiming to be about five to 10 times cheaper than the current average cost for Earth imaging and data collection. However, Urban Sky doesn’t plan on acting as a replacement for satellite imagery but as a lower-cost option for very specific use cases.

“We sit between these really expensive, but really high-resolution manned aircraft imaging systems and these really broad area coverage, but lower resolution and bandwidth-limited satellite systems that are really expensive,” Antonio says.



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LG buys its way into the EV charging business

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LG is jumping into the EV charging business with the acquisition of a South Korean EV battery charger developer called AppleMango, it announced. The move will allow it to create “fully-featured” charging stations with a user-friendly interface and real-time control and management, it said. In particular, it will be able to leverage its “sturdy, dust- and water-proof” outdoor digital display tech. 

LG is well-established in electric mobility, developing batteries, screens and sensors for electric cars. It recently joined forces with Magna International to develop e-motors, inverters and onboard chargers for automakers. The acquisition will expand that, allowing it to marry the new charger capabilities with its current in-house EV charging management systems. It’ll also allow LG to “create synergy” with its current EV battery business and products like energy storage and energy management systems. 

AppleMango was established three years ago in 2019 and has developed proprietary tech like a slim and fast EV charger. LG will also work with partners GS Energy, which operates EV charging stations and IT provider GS Neotek to develop the necessary infrastructure. LG took a 60 percent stake in AppleMango, GS Energy a 34 percent stake and GS Neotek a 6 percent share, according to TechCrunch

LG plans to install an EV charger production line at LG Digital Park in South Korea by the end of 2022. The goal is to supply a variety of customers with custom EV charging solutions, including private residences, shopping malls, hotels and public buildings. 

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.



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Apple’s entry-level MacBook Pro M2 has slower SSD speeds than its M1 counterpart

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Apple’s new 13-inch MacBook Pro M2 base model appears to have slower SSD speeds than its M1 predecessor. MacRumors reports that YouTubers Max Tech and Created Tech have both tested the 256GB base M2 model and discovered the SSD’s read speeds are around 50 precent slower than the M1 MacBook Pro with 256GB of storage. Write speeds are reportedly around 30 percent slower.

Testing was completed using Blackmagic’s Disk Speed Test app, and Max Tech even disassembled the 13-inch M2 MacBook Pro and found that Apple is only using a single NAND flash storage chip. The M1 MacBook Pro uses two 128GB NAND chips, and multiple chips can enable faster SSD speeds in parallel.

Other 13-inch M2 MacBook Pro models with larger SSD storage don’t appear to suffer from slower SSD speeds. Another YouTuber with a 512GB M2 model ran tests and found similar speeds to the M1 version, and most reviewers were seeded with fast 1TB models and didn’t find any speed issues.

If SSD speeds are an issue for you on the base 13-inch MacBook Pro, you’ll need to stump up an extra $200 for the faster 512GB model. But if you’re willing to do that, you might want to wait and see what’s inside the new MacBook Air. The base model will also be priced slightly less at $1,199, but if it has slower SSD speeds then there’s an identically-priced $1,499 512GB model that will presumably have the two NAND chips. Unlike the M2 MacBook Pro, the M2 MacBook Air also gets a big redesign — including new colors, a larger display, a 1080p webcam, and MagSafe charging.

We’ve reached out to Apple to comment on the SSD changes in the MacBook Pro, and we’ll update you accordingly if we ever hear back.



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Apple’s entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro M2 may have slower SSD speeds than the M1 model

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Apple’s 13-inch 256GB MacBook Pro M2 may have worse SSD performance than the equivalent M1 model, according to testing by YouTube sites Max Tech and Created Tech seen by MacRumors. The $1,300 base model showed around 50 percent slower read speeds (1,446 MB/s compared to 2,900 MB/s) with write speeds 30 percent lower. 

Max Tech opened up the 13-inch MacBook Pro M2 and found that it only had a single 256GB NAND flash storage chip instead of two 128GB chips like the previous M1 model. That would mean the drive can only use two lanes in parallel, so performance is restricted to the speed of a single lane. 

The higher-end 512GB and 1TB models don’t appear to suffer from the issue, and many review units (like our own) shipped in a 1TB configuration. The slower disk speeds on the 256GB model could affect app loading times, file transfers and data fetching. Overall performance could also take a hit as the virtual memory (used when RAM is full) will be slower, and the base model only has 8GB of RAM. 

It’s not clear why Apple changed the configuration on this model, though the global chip shortage may be a factor. In any case, it’s something to consider if you’re looking at buying the 13-inch MacBook Pro M2. 

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.



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