• Amazon’s Astro gets a major upgrade
  • Level 5 Autonomy is right around the corner
  • Control your computer… with a smile?

Dear Reader,

What is it about being a billionaire and wanting to break into the aerospace industry?

It’s one of the most peculiar and interesting trends in the world of high-tech. After all, none of the billionaires listed below have any background in aerospace engineering that would make the investment a logical fit.

  • Elon Musks SpaceX has been around for more than two decades and is arguably the most transformative aerospace company in history.

  • Jeff Bezos also launched Blue Origin more than 20 years ago with a focus on space tourism, and a clear roadmap for both moving payloads to orbit and lunar missions.

  • The late Paul Allen secretly funded Scaled Composites’ development of SpaceShipOne.

  • Richard Branson entered the race much later with Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

These have all been remarkable endeavors. Even more so because these companies were new entrants into the aerospace industry with no laurels to stand upon. They are/were rebels in that sense, incredible forces for disruption.

Paul Allen’s SpaceShipOne was the first privately funded spaceflight with a human passenger. Incredibly, that first flight took place almost 20 years ago in June of 2004. Scaled Composites won the Ansari X Prize for the achievement, but it was arguably too early in the race. The company was eventually chopped up and sold off, some assets of which ended up with Branson and Virgin Galactic.

Jeff Bezos has been well known for selling off about a billion dollars a year of Amazon stock to fund Blue Origin. Almost two years ago, Blue Origin succeeded with its first sub-orbital crewed flight to space with Jeff Bezos as a passenger himself.

Blue Origin has clear plans for a heavy lift launch vehicle, a lunar lander, and even a commercial space station – the Orbital Reef – in the coming years.

And Branson’s bravado to beat Bezos into space with Virgin Galactic’s first passenger flight was good entertainment. Days before Bezos made his successful trip, Branson rode on Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 to reach 50 miles (80 km) in altitude to be able to say that he was first.

But it hasn’t all been success. A few days ago, Branson had to shutter Virgin Orbit. Virgin Orbit’s business was built on the back of a custom Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl that would carry rockets to high altitudes and then launch them into space from its belly.

The company had its challenges, but it was able to launch 33 satellites into orbit in 2021/2022. The technology clearly worked, but Branson made one big mistake. He took the company public too early in 2021 before it could demonstrate consistency in revenues and profitability. This is critically important for such a CAPEX-heavy business like flying rocket launchers. The stock was destroyed as a result.

It’s not all bad news, however. As Virgin Orbit was anxious to sell off whatever assets it had, other promising private aerospace companies got amazing deals on some of the parts:

  • Rocket Lab paid $16.1 million for 144,000 ft2 for a manufacturing complex in Long Beach, CA. This is a great asset to support Rocket Lab’s next launch vehicle – Neutron.

  • Stratolaunch paid $17 million for Cosmic Girl which it will modify for its own Talon hypersonic test vehicles set to fly next year.

  • And Vast Space, a new entrant that we’ve been following in The Bleeding Edge with aspirations of launching and operating commercial space stations, acquired Virgin Orbit’s Mojave facility including machinery, equipment, and inventory for just $2.7 million.

In this way, Virgin Orbit’s collapse will support the missions of three great private aerospace companies, much in the way that Virgin Galactic has been powered by Scaled Composites’ early success. Coincidentally, Virgin Galactic just successfully flew to the edge of space and back on May 25 after almost a two-year pause since Branson’s flight.

But amongst all four of these billionaires, the real standout is Musk’s SpaceX. SpaceX is the most remarkable of the bunch having transformed the entire aerospace industry with its launch vehicles. With the radically improved and simplified design of rockets and propulsion, as well as reusability, SpaceX decreased the cost of getting payloads into space by more than 90%. And SpaceX will further disrupt the industry once the Starship has been commercialized in the coming months.

SpaceX is now powering pretty much the entire aerospace industry, and NASA, as result of its success. This year will be a record year of successful launches for any private company or country, for that matter. And the plans are already in place for supporting the Artemis missions to the moon and future colonization of Mars.

The common thread amongst these billionaires is that they’re dreamers. And they’re ambitious enough to want to do things that have never been done before. The best projects have been invested in for more than a decade without any concerns about profitability. Losing money was irrelevant. Succeeding in the mission was what was important.

That’s where Branson went wrong with Virgin Orbit. He took the company public way too early, well before it was able to stand on its own. That kind of company needs years more of technological development, operational improvements, and scale in its business before exposing it to the vicissitudes of the public markets.

He stopped dreaming and let the money drive his decisions.

I can only hope that Bezos and Musk don’t fall into the same trap. It’s important that they succeed. And it’s even better that they are being funded by private capital. While most of us will never go to the Moon or Mars, I hope they’ll keep the dream alive.

Amazon’s Astro is getting a facelift…

Interesting news just leaked out of Amazon’s robotic division. It seems Astro is getting a major upgrade.

Amazon unveiled Astro back in October 2021. It’s Amazon’s first home robotics product.

If we remember, Astro is very basic. It’s basically a tablet on two wheels. Here it is:

Source: Amazon

Astro is a far cry from the more sophisticated humanoid robots that we’ve been discussing recently. It’s not able to climb stairs or navigate difficult terrain. Nor does it have hands capable of moving and manipulating objects.

That said, Astro does provide utility. It can serve as a home security robot that monitors the house when no one’s home. It can provide basic information just like Amazon’s Alexa. And Astro can help its owners order products from Amazon.com and groceries from Whole Foods.

So Astro is certainly useful. But Amazon hasn’t rolled out the robot on a wide scale yet. So far it has only been available in beta format by request… even though the product is nearly two years old now.

Well, the news that just leaked gives us insight into why Amazon has been slow to roll out Astro more widely. It’s because they have been working to incorporate generative artificial intelligence (AI) into the robot.

As part of this upgrade, Amazon changed the name of the robot to Burnham. And it will be equipped with all the same abilities as OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

That means Burnham will be able to engage in conversations with its owners. What’s more, Burnham is equipped with a camera that provides computer vision. Paired with the generative AI, this will allow the robot to “see” and “understand” what’s happening around it. And that opens the door to some incredibly useful applications.

Burnham will be able to determine normal patterns and routines within its household. That will enable the robot to realize when something is not as it should be.

For example, Burnham will notice if somebody forgot to turn a faucet off. Or if the oven is still on but not in use. The robot might not be able to correct these mistakes itself. But it can alert its owner to them. That’s a great feature.

And this got me thinking…

Again, Burnham isn’t nearly as impressive as humanoid robots with legs, arms, and hands. But it still has great utility.

And here’s the key – humanoid robots will be expensive. They will cost in the $15,000 to $25,000 range. That puts them out of reach to most of the global market… which means they won’t be a mass-market product.

Right now, Astro sells for just $1,600. Burnham will likely launch around the same price point. And that means Amazon’s home robot will be affordable to far more households. It could very well become a mass-market product.

In fact, I can envision a scenario where households would be willing to buy two Burnhams – one for the main floor and one for the second level of the house.

So I think Amazon is on to something big here. Burnham’s not flashy… but it could become an incredibly successful product.

And I imagine a product like this becoming a “trial balloon” for more sophisticated home robots. Once consumers become accustomed to a robotic assistant in the home, it’s easier to make the leap to an intelligent humanoid robot.

This is the beginning of a multi-decade trend in home robotics…

Tesla’s latest FSD breakthrough…

Speaking of AI, Tesla just released its latest full self-driving (FSD) software version, and it’s pretty incredible.

It’s dubbed FSD version 11.4.1. And by all accounts, it’s absolutely fantastic. Check it out:

Here we can see Tesla’s new software navigating a two lane highway. Notice how the software is constantly tracking the cars around it on the big screen in the middle.

We can see how the AI uses this information to navigate safely as it takes a right turn at a somewhat busy intersection. It’s quite impressive.

And get this – Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that FSD version 12 will have full end-to-end self-driving capabilities. Musk actually argued that he could have called this latest release v12, but he suggested that there will be a follow-on “major” release coming out in the next few months. That means Tesla is very close to releasing self-driving software, basically level five autonomy, which can handle 99.9% of all situations.

It’s funny. So many people have been critical of Tesla and Musk over the last several years with regard to its self-driving technology. Even the media often refuses to acknowledge Tesla’s progress. The truth is that many boycott Tesla because it doesn’t like to spend money on advertising and public relations.

I remember when Musk made the decision to remove Lidar sensors from Tesla cars. The industry lambasted him for that. They thought Lidar was absolutely critical to self-driving technology and felt that relying on video from cameras was going to be impossible for autonomous driving.

Well, Musk and his team proved them wrong. Tesla’s system uses video inputs rather than Lidar, and we can clearly see how well it works. I’ve experienced it myself with earlier software releases of FSD, and it was impressive back then.

It’s been a long time coming, but we’re getting very close to the realization of end-to-end self-driving cars. And once that happens, I expect we’ll see exponential adoption from consumers and enterprise customers.

I wonder what “they” will say then.

Time to put on your Gameface…

We’ll wrap up today with an interesting development at Google.

The tech giant just revealed a new project endeavor called Project Gameface. This is Google’s take on a brain-computer interface (BCI).

Gameface is software that was written as a Windows app. It pairs the webcam on any computer with AI capable of monitoring facial expressions. The software then allows users to control the computer using specific facial movements.

Google developed Gameface originally to empower an individual with a very bad form of muscular dystrophy. This person lost the use of his hands… so Google set out to design software that will let him use his computer.

The first application here is gaming – hence the name. Gameface allows users to perform specific actions in computer games just with their facial movements. It could be a smile, a wink, an eyebrow raise, etc. – each expression corresponds to an action within the game.

This is a great take on BCI technology. I love the fact that it does not require any invasive procedures. All one needs is the software and a webcam.

And the reality is that this opportunity is much bigger than just gaming. This software can be programmed to work with any computer application. Thus, it could empower anyone with a disability to engage in their normal functions on a computer.

That got me thinking – this software isn’t even limited to people with disabilities. We could all use it to enhance our ability to work with computers normally. After all, even those of us capable of using a keyboard and a mouse could benefit from having the computer perform certain functions just based on a facial expression. This would be an interesting way to augment our current use of computers.

That’s why this approach is so interesting. Given there’s no need for invasive procedures, anybody may be open to using the Gameface software. I’m very curious to see if Google is planning a bigger play with this software release.


Jeff Brown
Editor, The Bleeding Edge