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Macro and Prices: Sentiment Swings Between Inflation and Recession

(On vacation for the rest of the month.  Going to Portugal.  Commentary will resume on June 1.   Good luck to us all.)The market is a fickle mistress….

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(On vacation for the rest of the month.  Going to Portugal.  Commentary will resume on June 1.   Good luck to us all.)

The market is a fickle mistress. The major central banks were judged to be behind the inflation curve. Much teeth-gashing, finger-pointing. Federal Reserve Chair Powell was blamed for denying that 75 bp hike was under consideration. Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda was blamed for keeping the 0.25% cap on the 10-year Japanese Government Bond yield. Even though European Central Bank President Lagarde had indicated previously that rates could be increased within weeks of the end of the bond purchases, many observers embraced it as a new sign that the ECB was belated to hike rates as early as July. For the better part of three weeks, the swaps market has been pricing in a 20 bp rate hike. It peaked not when Lagarde spoke last week but on April 22.

The US 10-year breakeven rate (the difference between the yield of the inflation-protected security and the conventional note yield) rose from 2.60% at the end of last year to a high a little bit above 3.05% on April 22. Since then, it has been trending erratically lower and bottomed near 2.63%, before the CPI report. It finished last week around 2.74%, falling about 12 bp on the week. The three-week decline is the longest since January.

Many observers write and speak as if the Fed needs to catch up to the market. But this seems like a variant of the hubris virus that they often diagnose the central bank with. The relationship is much more complicated. Consider that a week ago, the swaps market was pricing in a terminal Fed funds rate of 3.75%. After elevated CPI and PPI prints, the terminal rate is now, ironically, projected close to 3.0%. Or consider that shortly after the Fed's statement and before Powell's press conference, the December Fed funds futures contract implied a 2.89% yield. It finished last week near 2.63%.  

There is an industry built on criticizing the Federal Reserve. The Fed is damned if they do and damned if they don't. It is an easy mark. When it raised by 25 bp in March, it was criticized for not being more aggressive. When the Fed raised rates by 50 bp earlier this month, it was blamed for taking 75 bp off the table. Often, the same voices criticize the Fed for risking a recession.

Many accept that the economic contraction in Q1 was the result of GDP math. Importing too many goods (relative to exports) and accumulating

 inventories at a slower pace than the record set in Q4 were critical drags. Consumption and business investment rose. That is ultimately what drives the economy. Nevertheless, some pundits play up the risk that the US is on the verge of a recession. We have expressed concerns about tightening monetary and fiscal policy as the economy slows. We brought attention to the doubling of oil prices, which has preceded the last three US recessions. The inventory cycle looks mature and is unlikely to be the tailwind going forward. The build-up of savings and pent-up consumer demand appear to have run their course.

However, the doom and gloom camp is over-hyping the case. Monetary policy is known for its variable lags. The federal deficit may be halved this year, but that still leaves it above 5% of GDP. The US job growth remains impressive. Through last month, non-farm payrolls have risen by over 2 mln this year. It is not far off the pace in the same period last year (~2.2 mln). Weekly initial jobless claims are hovering around 200k, roughly half the pace of May 2021. Yes, the improvement in the labor market will slow, and it will have to slow much more than it has to support a recession scenario after the contraction in Q1. 

Like those who see a currency war every year or so, the doom and gloom camp or the always-critical of the Fed crowd are crying wolf. And therein lies the importance of the economic data in the days ahead. There may be no reason to let the facts interfere with a good story, but the economic data may show a solid gain in consumption and continued growth in industrial output.  Or, to say the same thing, the data should show an expanding, not contracting, economy.

April retail sales are expected to rise by a solid 1% by the median forecast in Bloomberg's survey after a revised 0.7% (from 0.5%) gain in March. We already know that auto sales were stronger, which likely lifted the headline figure. Some economic models use components for GDP calculations, which exclude autos, gasoline, building materials, and food services (the models pick up the information from different time series), are expected to rise by 0.6% after a revised 0.7% gain from -0.1) in March. Industrial output rose by nearly 3% in Q1, and that pace will not be sustained. Last year, industrial output rose by 0.3% a month. In April, output may have increased by 0.4%.

Among the first places to look at financial conditions biting are the interest rate sensitive sectors, like housing. April housing starts will be reported on May 18. A decline is indeed expected after two months of gains, but the takeaway is that the level of activity is elevated. March housing starts were the highest in 16 years. The same is true of permits. 

Another place to look for financial conditions biting is in the translation of foreign earnings into dollars for US companies. Figures cited in Barron's from Sentieo, a financial analytics company, noted that 20 US companies with market caps of more than $100 bln cited the dollar's appreciation as a headwind, which is twice from a year ago. What was left unsaid was that there are around 100 such companies, meaning something on the magnitude of 80% of the giants did not complain about the dollar's appreciation.  

In addition to translation, there is an issue of competitiveness too. According to the OCED's model of purchasing power parity, the euro, sterling, and yen have not been this undervalued in at least 30 years. It may not be a short-run consideration, but it can impact the relative competitiveness and exposure of even purely domestic US companies to a foreign competition that may not have been there a couple of years ago.

In addition to the divergence of monetary policy, part of the current political and economic environment is that America's two rivals, Russia and China, are shooting themselves in the foot. America's penchant for exaggerating the strength of Russian strength has again proved wide of the mark. Moscow's ability to project its power will be curtailed. NATO will be bigger than before--more members and a greater presence--and Russia's economy has been traumatized despite the capital-controls induced rouble appreciation. China's Covid response seems over-the-top and is hobbling the economy. Despite the best efforts of the Chinese government, the world has gotten a glimpse of the gap between the Chinese people and the rulers in Beijing. For years, Chinese officials have raised questions about the US model, but the chickens have come home to roost, and China's developmental model is being questioned in new ways.

The sharp drop in Chinese lending in April is a warning of a dismal economic performance as the lockdowns and social restrictions crippled around half of its economy. The silver lining is that Shanghai may appear from the lockdowns shortly, and a "V" type recovery is possible ifCovid can be brought under control. There is scope for China to cut its benchmark 1-year medium-term lending facility (MLF) rate, which has remained at 2.85% since being cut by 10 bp in January. A reduction in the MLF at the start of the new week would boost the chances of a cut in the loan prime rate at the end of the week.

Japan has two data points that will be of interest. First, it will report Q1 GDP. It is expected to have contracted by 0.4%-0.5%. The Covid restrictions and earthquake weakened the economy after growing by 1.1% in Q4 22. The government has responded with a spending package, and in any event, the economy already appears to be recovering. Second, Japan will report the national CPI figures for April at the end of the week. The market got a hint of what to expect from the surge in the Tokyo CPI. In addition to rising food and energy prices, the dropping of last year's cuts in cell phone charges will lift measured inflation. Excluding fresh food and energy, Japan's CPI rose above zero in April for the first time since July 2020.

The market does not pay much attention to Japan's trade figures. That seems to be the most straightforward explanation why so many observers insist on characterizing Japan as export-oriented. Japan will report its April trade figures early on May 19 in Tokyo. A sharp deterioration is expected (~JPY1.2 trillion deficit from a JPY414 bln shortfall in March. It will be the ninth consecutive monthly trade deficit. In April 2021, it recorded a nearly JPY227 bln trade surplus.

The UK reports employment figures, April CPI, and retail sales. Employment growth is expected to slow, and average earnings growth will likely be little changed. Economists anticipate the unemployment rate to remain in the trough near 3.8%, which is also where it was at the end of 2019. Still, it is understood to be a lagging indicator. UK retail sales likely fell for the third consecutive month when gasoline is excluded. With two exceptions, it has been falling since last May as the cost-of-living squeeze intensifies. Meanwhile, CPI will surge. A 54% rise in the household energy cap was announced in February, effective in April. That alone will lift the month-over-month rate by more than 1.5%. The Bank of England forecast the year-over-year rate to rise to 9.1% from 7.0% in March.

Lastly, we note that UK Prime Minister Johnson is expected to address Northern Ireland's protocol in a speech in the coming week. Tensions have been rising, and the recent election defeat for the Democratic Unionist Party allows it to play the obstructionist role. It refuses to join the government unless the protocol that was a result of extended negotiations is jettisoned.

Turning to the price action:  

Dollar Index:  The Dollar Index rose for the sixth consecutive week and pushed to almost 105.00 for the first time since late 2002. The main driver is the aggressiveness of the Federal Reserve and, secondarily, the poor news stream from Europe, Russia, and China. The momentum indicators are stretched but do not appear poised to turn lower. The 104.00 area may provide support as it capped the upside for a little bit. There is little on the charts until closer to 106.00.

Euro:  The single currency continues to struggle to sustain even minor upticks. It has fallen for the past four sessions and made a new five-year low near $1.0350 ahead of the weekend. A break of the 2017 low ($1.0340) leaves very little to deter a test on parity. Given the elevated volatility (three-month ~9.5%), a move to $1.0 is not so much a tail risk. The $1.05 area now may offer the nearby cap.  A convincing move above $1.06 would suggest a bottom of some import could be in place. 

Japanese Yen: The exchange rate and US yields continue to move nearly in lockstep. The direction seems more important than the level on a day-to-day basis. In the first four sessions last week, the 10-year US yield fell nearly 30 bp, and the dollar fell from around JPY130.50 to about JPY128.30. The yield rose ahead of the weekend, and the dollar traded a full yen off the lows. The momentum indicators have pulled back as one would expect, with a nearly 3% pullback in spot. We often find the dollar-yen pair to be rangebound, and when it does trend, it frequently is moving to a new trend. We suspect that the JPY127.00 area marks the lower end of the range. 

British Pound:  Sterling fell for the fourth consecutive week, and it is poised to fall further. The $1.20 area is the next important target. There have been 23 sessions since April 13, and sterling has fallen in all but four sessions, and none of them was last week. In fact, sterling takes a seven-day slump into next week's activity. It fell to almost $1.2155 before the weekend, its lowest level since May 2020. The momentum indicators are stretched but show little inclination of turning. Initial resistance is likely around $1.2250 but probably takes a move above $1.24 to be of technical significance.

Canadian Dollar:  The close movement of the yen and US 10-year yield has a parallel with the Canadian dollar and the S&P 500. For the past 30 and 60 sessions, the correlation of the changes is tighter with the Canadian dollar and the S&P 500 than between the yen and US yields. The US dollar reached almost CAD1.3080 on May 12, its highest level since late 2020. The recovery in US equities ahead of the weekend sent the greenback to almost CAD1.2900. A break of the CAD1.2850 area is needed to boost the chances that a high is in place. The MACD appears poised to turn down from extreme levels. The Slow Stochastic has fluctuated a bit but is essentially flat this month despite the rise in spot. Macroeconomic fundamentals look to be among the best in the G7.

Australian Dollar:  Since the central bank induced bounce in the Australian dollar (May 4), it has tumbled about 6% to the May 12 low of around $0.6830. Nearly half of that decline was recorded on May 11 and 12, yet the bounce ahead of the weekend was not particularly impressive. It was unable to rise above the previous day's high (~$0.6955), and the close was still the second lowest since mid-2020. The Aussie fell by 2.3% last week, and it was the sixth weekly decline in the past seven. It lost around 8% this run. The momentum indicators are stretched. The MACD could turn higher in the coming days, but the Slow Stochastic is still trending lower in oversold territory. The next important target on the downside is around $0.6760, the halfway point of the Aussie's rally from the pandemic low near $0.5500 in March 2020 to slightly above $0.8000 a year later.

Mexican Peso:  The peso's resilience is impressive even if under-appreciated. While the US dollar has been appreciating multiyear highs against the other major currencies, the peso has held its own. The peso has appreciated by a little less than 2% this year. Leaving aside the Russian rouble, only two other emerging market currencies are up for the year. The Brazilian real has appreciated by 9.6%, and the Peruvian sol has gained nearly 6%. The swaps market is pricing in 135 bp rate increases in the next three months when there are three meetings, which is about what the Fed funds futures have priced in for the Federal Reserve. The momentum indicators have flatlined near mid-range. Support is seen near MXN20.00, which held earlier this month. Initial resistance may be around MXN20.25-MXN20.30. It takes a four-day rally into the week ahead. 

Chinese Yuan: There is nothing special about the Chinese yuan in some ways. It is falling like nearly all the currencies. The yuan has depreciated by about 6.4% so far this year. The bulk of the move has taken place in the last four weeks. The greenback rose from around CNY6.37 to reach a high a little more than CNY6.81 before the weekend. We suspect the dollar would be higher, but the PBOC seems to be moderating its rise by setting the dollar's reference rate lower than the market projects consistently since returning from the labor holidays earlier this month. We suspect the yuan may begin stabilizing and do not expect it to rise above CNY6.85. Initially, support may be in the CNY6.72-CNY6.74 area. 


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Government

Sheila Ochugboju named Executive Director of Alliance for Science

Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) is pleased to welcome Sheila Ochugboju as the new Executive Director of the Alliance for Science (AfS), a global communications…

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Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) is pleased to welcome Sheila Ochugboju as the new Executive Director of the Alliance for Science (AfS), a global communications initiative dedicated to promoting access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally. Her start date is June 1.

Credit: Image provided/Sheila Ochugboju

Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) is pleased to welcome Sheila Ochugboju as the new Executive Director of the Alliance for Science (AfS), a global communications initiative dedicated to promoting access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally. Her start date is June 1.

“We are delighted that Dr. Ochugboju will soon be joining us,” said BTI President David Stern. “The Alliance plays a vital role in connecting a range of stakeholders with up-to-date and vital information about how scientific advances can contribute to the future of the planet’s health, an effort that aligns perfectly with BTI’s mission to advance and communicate scientific discovery in plant biology to improve agriculture, protect the environment, and enhance human health.”

“We are fortunate to have someone with Sheila’s experience, connections and vision in this role,” Stern added.

Ochugboju is a leader in science communication and has been a global advocate for science technology and innovation for more than 20 years. She was most recently the Head of Strategic Communications at the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), supporting vaccine delivery communication across Africa and advocating for vaccine equity.

She is also a founding member of the Network of African Women Environmentalists (NAWE), leading in the development of flagship initiatives and products such as the Earth Science Cafes, The Youth Earth Guardians and Landscape Mentors network and the Earth Reflections Podcast, which was rated amongst the leading environment podcasts in Africa in 2020.

“I am excited to join the Boyce Thompson Institute, because together with the Alliance for Science we can offer new lenses, tools, and partnerships to transform how the world understands the role of science in addressing global challenges,” said Ochugboju. “The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and now food security challenges are teaching everyone that good science communication can literally save lives and livelihoods.”

Founded in 2014, AfS is a global communications initiative that seeks to counter misinformation about agricultural biotechnology, climate change, nuclear power, vaccines, COVID-19 and other contemporary science issues.

To support its work, the Alliance relies on a global network of about 14,000 science allies who engage in their local communities to advance science-based policies. AfS has trained more than 900 science champions, including scientists, farmers, journalists, healthcare professionals and students, in 48 countries to communicate effectively about biotechnology.

“After a comprehensive executive search, we are thrilled to have found someone like Dr. Ochugboju, who has the knowledge and ability to broaden the horizon of the Alliance for Science and bring resources to counter misinformation across a more substantial expanse of scientific endeavor, especially including climate change,” said Ronnie Coffman, Professor of Global Development at Cornell University and Interim Director of AfS.  

Ochugboju graduated with a degree in Medical Biochemistry and then received her Ph.D. in Plant Biochemistry from Royal Holloway, University of London in 1996. She was awarded the Daphne Jackson Trust Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship, based at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, St. Hilda’s College, University of Oxford in 1998.

She has lived and worked in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. In 2016, she received a WINGS WorldQuest Women of Discovery Award for developing and leading pioneering African science, technology and innovation projects. Ochugboju was also appointed as a Global Roving Ambassador for the county government of Kisumu, Kenya, in charge of the portfolio for Transformative Science and Urban Resilience.

About Boyce Thompson Institute:

Opened in 1924, Boyce Thompson Institute is a premier life sciences research institution located in Ithaca, New York. BTI scientists conduct investigations into fundamental plant and life sciences research with the goals of increasing food security, improving environmental sustainability in agriculture, and making basic discoveries that will enhance human health. Throughout this work, BTI is committed to inspiring and educating students and to providing advanced training for the next generation of scientists. BTI is an independent nonprofit research institute that is also affiliated with Cornell University. For more information, please visit BTIscience.org.

 

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How Crowded Are Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Ships Right Now?

Both cruise lines have raised capacities slowly. When will Royal Caribbean and Carnival hit normal?

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Both cruise lines have raised capacities slowly. When will Royal Caribbean and Carnival hit normal?

When Freedom of the Seas sailed from Miami on July 2, 2021, it marked Royal Caribbean International's (RCL) - Get Royal Caribbean Group Report return to North American sailing after being shut down since March 2020. 

That sailing has less than 1,000 people on it, mostly loyal cruisers eager to get back to sea no matter what the rules were (as well as a fair amount of company executives.

That ship can hold 4,375 passengers at full capacity, according to Ship Technology and on that July sailing, it felt empty and crew seemed to outnumber passengers. 

At night, in the British Pub, the crowd was essentially me, two other journalists, and the occasional person who wandered by. 

That made it, perhaps, too easy to get a drink, and while it was a wonderful experience, that sailing only felt normal when everyone onboard took to the upper decks to cheer sail away and celebrate the Fourth of July,

I sailed on Freedom on that July sailing, then again in September, October, November, December, and then again in May.

I sailed Odyssey of the Seas and Wonder of the Seas in between January and May. 

The crowds got progressively bigger through the fall, but even the December sailing (a three-day weekend, which in pre-pandemic times would be at or near capacity) still had a limited capacity.

Royal Caribbean steadily increased the number of people on its ships, with some slight pauses in that as new covid variants popped up and Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) - Get Carnival Corporation Report has followed roughly the same model.   

Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Cruise Lines Capacity Is Coming Back

How crowded will my cruise be? 

This has been a question seemingly every experienced cruiser has asked. In the summer and fall, that answer was "not at all," and later "not as much as usual," but the numbers of passengers onboard has slowly moved back to normal, even reaching it on some sailings.

Cruise lines generally don't offer a lot of comment on why they might be limiting capacity when technically they no longer have. 

Crew concerns, including not being able to onboard new crew members to allow for full sailings due to slow visa processing times and keeping rooms open fr potential covid quarantines have kept some ships below their full complement of passengers.

Demand, of course, factors in as well. Royal Caribbean CFO Naftali Holtz commented on where his company stands now during its first-quarter earnings call.

"I'd like to comment on capacity and load factor expectations over the upcoming period. We plan to restart operations on all remaining ships by the end of June. 

"We plan to operate about 10.3 million APCDs [available passenger cruise days] during the second quarter, and we expect load factors of approximately 75% to 80%," he said. 

"Our load factor expectations reflect the higher occupancy we are seeing in the Caribbean and lower expectations for repositioning voyages and early season Europe sailings."

It's clear that demand is a factor when it comes to why certain sailings are sailing with fewer passengers than others. 

Carnival has had to limit the cabins it has been selling on its United Kingdom-based Cunard line due to staffing issues.

“As you may have seen in the news, the wider impact of Covid-19 is affecting hospitality and is disrupting airlines and as such this is impacting the number of crew members we are able to get to our ships,” said the company in a statement.

“We naturally want to ensure that all guests across the fleet experience the high standards of service on board that they would expect from Cunard and which we are committed to delivering,” the company added. 

“We are therefore limiting the number of guests sailing as we build crew numbers back up."

Normal Cruise Crowds Are Coming

Once staffing issues return to normal — something that is slowly happening — the biggest concern may be whether the economy slows demand. 

Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said he expects his company to get close to normal over the summer during the cruise line's first-quarter earnings call.

"We're well on our way back to full cruise operations, with three-quarters of our capacity having resumed guest operations and a plan to return the balance of the fleet for the summer season. And while the conversation around covid-19 is greatly reduced, we still have to and are successfully actively managing," he said.

And while neither Carnival's nor Royal Caribbean's CEO said it directly, passengers sailing this summer will likely experience passenger counts in line with tradition. 

That does not mean some sailings won't have limited capacities, or sell poorly, but many will not as long as demand remains within historical norms.

 

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Spread & Containment

Lab, crab and robotic rehab

I was in Berkeley a couple of months back, helping TechCrunch get its proverbial ducks in a row before our first big climate event (coming in a few weeks,…

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I got previews of a number of projects I hope to share with you in the newsletter soon, but one that really caught my eye was FogROS, which was just announced as part of the latest ROS (robot operating system) rollout. Beyond a punny name that is simultaneously a reference to the cloud element (fog/cloud — not to mention the fact that the new department has killer views of San Francisco and frequent visitor, Karl) and problematic French cuisine, there’s some really compelling potential here.

I’ve been thinking about the potential impact of cloud-based processing quite a bit the last several years, independent of my writing about robots. Specifically, a number of companies (Microsoft, Amazon, Google) have been betting big on cloud gaming. What do you do when you’ve seemingly pushed a piece of hardware to its limit? If you’ve got low enough latency, you can harness remote servers to do the heavy lifting. It’s something that’s been tried for at least a decade, to varying effect.

Image Credits: ROS

Latency is, of course, a major factor in gaming, where being off by a millisecond can dramatically impact the experience. I’m not fully convinced that experience is where it ought to be quite yet, but it does seem the tech has graduated to a point where off-board processing makes practical sense for robotics. You can currently play a console game on a smartphone with one of those services, so surely we can produce smaller, lighter-weight and lower-cost robots that rely on a remote server to complete resource-intensive tasks like SLAM processing.

The initial application will focus on AWS, with plans to reach additional services like Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure. Watch this space. There are many reasons to be excited. Honestly, there’s a lot to be excited about in robotics generally right now. This was one of the more fun weeks in recent memory.

V Bionic's exoskeleton glove shown without its covering.

Image Credits: V Bionic

Let’s start with the ExoHeal robotic rehabilitation gloves. The device, created by Saudi Arabian V Bionic, nabbed this year’s Microsoft Imagine Cup. The early-stage team is part of a proud tradition of healthcare exoskeletons. In this case, it’s an attempt to rehab the hand following muscle and tendon injuries. Team leader Zain Samdani told TechCrunch:

Flexor linkage-driven movement gives us the flexibility to individually actuate different parts of each finger (phalanges) whilst keeping the device portable. We’re currently developing our production-ready prototype that utilizes a modular design to fit the hand sizes of different patients.

Image Credits: Walmart

This is the third week in a row Walmart gets a mention here. First it was funding for GreyOrange, which it partnered with in Canada. Last week we noted a big expansion of the retail giant’s deal with warehouse automation firm, Symbotic. Now it’s another big expansion of an existing deal — this time dealing with the company’s delivery ambitions.

Like Walmart’s work with robotics, drone delivery success has been…spotty, at best. Still, it’s apparently ready to put its money where its mouth is on this one, with a deal that brings DroneUp delivery to 34 sites across six U.S. states. Quoting myself here:

The retailer announced an investment in the 6-year-old startup late last year, following trial deliveries of COVID-19 testing kits. Early trials were conducted in Bentonville, Arkansas. This year, Arizona, Florida, Texas and DroneUp’s native Virginia are being added to the list. Once online, customers will be able to choose from tens of thousands of products, from Tylenol to hot dog buns, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Freigegeben für die Berichterstattung über das Unternehemn Wingcopter bis zum 25.01.2026. Mit Bitte um Urhebervermerk v.l.: Jonathan Hesselbarth, Tom Plümmer und Ansgar Kadura von Wingcopter GmbH. Image Credits: © Jonas Wresch / KfW

There are still more question marks around this stuff than anything, and I’ve long contended that drone delivery makes the most sense in remote and otherwise hard to reach areas. That’s why something like this Wingcopter deal is interesting. Over the next five years, the company plans to bring 12,000 of its fixed-wing UAVs to 49 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa. It will cover spots that have traditionally struggled with infrastructural issues that have made it difficult to deliver food and medical supplies through more traditional means.

“With the looming food crisis on the African continent triggered by the war in Ukraine, we see great potential and strong social impact that drone-delivery networks can bring to people in all the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa by getting food to where it is needed most,” CEO Tom Plümmer told TechCrunch. “Especially in remote areas with weak infrastructure and those areas that are additionally affected by droughts and other plagues, Wingcopter’s delivery drones will build an air bridge and provide food from the sky on a winch to exactly where it is needed.”

Legitimately exciting stuff, that.

Image Credits: Dyson

In more cautiously optimistic news, Dyson dropped some interesting news this week, announcing that it has been (and will continue) pumping a lot of money into robotic research. Part of the rollout includes refitting an aircraft hangar at Hullavington Airfield, a former RAF station in Chippenham, Wiltshire, England that the company purchased back in 2016.

Some numbers from the company:

Dyson is halfway through the largest engineering recruitment drive in its history. Two thousand people have joined the tech company this year, of which 50% are engineers, scientists, and coders. Dyson is supercharging its robotics ambitions, recruiting 250 robotics engineers across disciplines including computer vision, machine learning, sensors and mechatronics, and expects to hire 700 more in the robotics field over the next five years. The master plan: to create the UK’s largest, most advanced, robotics center at Hullavington Airfield and to bring the technology into our homes by the end of the decade.

The primary project highlighted is a robot arm with a number of attachments, including a vacuum and a human-like robot hand, which are designed to perform various household tasks. Dyson has some experience building robots, primarily through its vacuums, which rely on things like computer vision to autonomously navigate. Still, I say “cautiously optimistic,” because I’ve seen plenty of non-robotics companies showcase the technology as more of a vanity project. But I’m more than happy to have Dyson change my mind.

Image Credits: Hyundai

Hyundai, of course, has been quite aggressive in its own robotics dreams, including its 2020 acquisition of Boston Dynamics. The carmaker this week announced that part of its massive new $10 billion investment plans will include robotics, with a focus of actually bringing some of its far-out concepts to market.

Another week, another big round for logistics/fulfillment robotics, as Polish firm Nomagic raised $22 million to expand its offerings. The company’s primary offering is a pick and place arm that can move and sort small goods. Khosla Ventures and Almaz Capital led the round, which also featured European Investment Bank, Hoxton Ventures, Capnamic Ventures, DN Capital and Manta Ray.

Amazon Astro with periscope camera

The periscope camera pops out and extends telescopically, enabling Astro to look over obstacles and on counter tops. A very elegant design choice. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

We finally got around to reviewing Amazon’s limited-edition home robot, Astro, and Haje’s feelings were…mixed:

It’s been fun to have Astro wandering about my apartment for a few days, and most of the time I seemed to use it as a roving boom box that also has Alexa capabilities. That’s cute, and all, but $1,000 would buy Alexa devices for every thinkable surface in my room and leave me with enough cash left over to cover the house in cameras. I simply continue to struggle with why Astro makes sense. But then, that’s true for any product that is trying to carve out a brand new product category.

A tiny robot crab scuttles across the frame. Image Credits: Northwestern University

And finally, a tiny robot crab from Northwestern University. The little guy can be controlled remotely using lasers and is small enough to sit on the side of a penny. “Our technology enables a variety of controlled motion modalities and can walk with an average speed of half its body length per second,” says lead researcher, Yonggang Huang. “This is very challenging to achieve at such small scales for terrestrial robots.”

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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