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‘Lightbulb moment’: the battery technology invented in a Brisbane garage that is going global | Brisbane

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As some of the world’s largest companies invest billions to advance battery technology, Dominic Spooner has been working at solving the next problem: the impact of unwieldy – and environmentally unfriendly – battery casings.

Spooner runs his lightweight battery casing technology firm Vaulta from a shared garage in Brisbane’s north. “Batteries will change our lives in ways that we’re maybe not even totally aware of, but … we can create our own new group of problems if we’re not careful,” he says.

From a workspace surrounded by packing boxes and other junk, like an old door, Spooner and his team have caught global attention.

This year Vaulta has signed agreements with aerospace and car battery companies, including one with Braille Battery – an American manufacturer of ultra-lightweight batteries for Nascar, IndyCar and the Australian Supercars.

Last month the company received a $297,500 federal grant to commercialise its technology.

For those still sceptical about the extent and pace of global innovation being directed towards battery technology, the International Energy Agency says patents for energy storage inventions have grown four times faster than the rest of the technology sector, and are set to catalyse clean energy transitions around the world.

In 2020, Samsung spent US$710m (A$950m) on research and development of next-generation electric vehicle (EV) batteries. An Israeli firm has this year begun production of an EV battery that can charge in five minutes.

‘We’ve got time now to do it right’

So how does a tiny garage-bound Brisbane startup find its place among global giants in the rush to innovate?

“It seems like almost every other day there are tech advancements – in the cells, cell types, cell shapes, cell geometry – coming out of the US or Europe,” Spooner says.

“But the way they’re being packaged, the way they’re being housed, was just being overlooked.”

Vaulta founder Dominic Spooner and R&D engineer Jerome Douven at work in Brisbane
Vaulta founder Dominic Spooner and R&D engineer Jerome Douven at work in Brisbane. Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian

Vaulta’s technology reduces the number of components used in battery cases. The casings reduce the battery size by about 18%. They also don’t weld parts together, which means they can be taken apart and reused rather than dumped – a start on preventing some of the 98% of disused batteries that goes into landfill.

Spooner says the “lightbulb moment” was a decision to work towards making a casing that could be disassembled.

“At the end of that first life, can you replace cells? Can you change them over? Is any of that feasible? What we started realising was we were just scratching the surface.

“Because we’re not welding the cells, when they come out of that casing they have the same properties as when they went in, and they are better set up for reuse scenarios.

“[Battery innovation] is driven by performance – further, longer, cheaper … all the things that are going the help the take-up of batteries. But we’ve also got the time to do something right now, to do them in a smarter way. It’s not just about recycling and reuse, but how can we get them into people’s hands.”

‘Flying cars could be on the market within a decade’

In an electric car, the battery can weigh several hundred kilograms – about a third of the car’s total weight.

Audrey Quicke, a climate and energy researcher at the Australia Institute, says about a quarter of the cost of an electric vehicle comes from the battery under the hood.

“Upfront cost is one of the biggest barriers to EV uptake in Australia,” Quicke says. “Although the fuelling and maintenance costs are cheap compared to petrol and diesel vehicles, it’s the upfront sticker price that stands out in the showroom. Any tech developments that bring down the price of batteries would likely help increase EV sales.”

Vaulta is working on battery casing technology out of the garage of a home in Brisbane, Queensland
Vaulta is working on lightweight battery casing technology that could unlock a second tranche of innovation. Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian

Quicke says a 2018 Senate inquiry recommended a comprehensive EV manufacturing roadmap, which would also cover battery and component manufacturing, but that many of the recommendations remain unrealised.

“EVs and batteries are not a high priority in the government’s technology roadmap, and there’s no federal electric vehicle strategy to speak of,” she says.

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“But the writing is on the wall. It is the state governments and tech entrepreneurs that are driving the EV, charging and battery innovation in Australia. Imagine what could be achieved with a nationally consistent supportive EV policy environment to provide direction for this transition.”

Spooner says the company doesn’t intend to produce battery casings at a commercial scale. Rather the aim is to license the technology and to work with manufacturers in Australia and overseas. But he says the ability to reduce the weight of batteries could unlock a second tranche of innovation.

Flying cars, for instance, no longer sound like a film fantasy and could be on the market within a decade.

“It could really open the door here or overseas for vehicle makers and for [vehicles] that don’t exist yet,” Spooner says.

“Locally there’s not a huge EV industry in Australia, but that’s not to say there won’t be. There’s advanced aerospace … manned and unmanned. Stationary storage is here to stay as well.

“Percentage gains in those sorts of fields are really exciting to be a part of – for a car to be delivered as concept, then to be reined in and delivered to the mass consumer.

“The boundaries for new technology to enter the market would be less.

“But batteries also have a big role to play right now. In a lot of ways it’s a mature technology in its early stages of rollout.”

‘You can’t beat the commute’

At the outset of the pandemic as Spooner began to work on the battery casing technology, he spotted a neighbour, an engineer, working in the garage of a nearby home.

Vaulta sublet the space soon after and has no immediate plans to leave. For one thing, it’s too convenient – right around the corner from Spooner’s home, which allows plenty of time to spend with his young daughter.

“When we talk about the garage, it’s actually an upgrade from where we were,” Spooner says.

“We were working from home. We basically worked through emails, phone calls, text messages.

“Through Covid we’ve managed to find a way to do business with Canada, parts of the US. You just kind of adjust and I actually quite like it. You can’t beat the commute and we’re pretty comfortable there, to be honest.”

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Dyson reveals its big bet … robots | Dyson Ltd

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Dyson has signalled it is placing a “big bet” on producing robots capable of household chores by 2030, as it looks to move beyond the vacuum cleaners, fans and dryers that made its founder one of the wealthiest British businessmen.

The company, founded by billionaire Sir James Dyson, on Wednesday published photographs of robot arms being used in household settings, including cleaning furniture, a claw picking up plates, and a hand-like machine picking up a teddy bear.

While those may not sound like major achievements, robots still struggle with many actions that represent simple tasks for humans, such as grasping fragile objects or dealing with unfamiliar obstacles. Solving those and other problems could create new markets for the company.

Dyson provided pictures of of previously secret robot prototypes carrying out household chores.
Dyson’s once secret robot prototype. Photograph: Dyson

Dyson wants to build the UK’s largest robotics research centre at its Hullavington Airfield site, close to its design centre in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. However, other recruits will also be based in a London laboratory as well as in Singapore.

James Dyson, whose net worth is £23bn, according to the Sunday Times, controversially moved the company’s HQ to Singapore in early 2019 despite championing the prospects of Britain’s manufacturing industry after Brexit, which he backed prominently.

The Hullavington site had been planned as the location to develop an electric car. However, despite initially believing its car could be Dyson’s next big product, the effort was abandoned at the prototype stage because of concerns over profitability.

a robot arm picks up a teddy bear
Robots still struggle with many actions that represent simple tasks for humans, such as grasping fragile objects or dealing with unfamiliar obstacles. Photograph: Dyson

Dyson, which made revenues of £6bn and profits before various costs of £1.5bn in 2021, had said it would spend £2.75bn from 2020 to 2025 – including £600m this year – to launch new products and research technologies, including robotics and batteries.

Dyson announced at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Philadelphia that 2,000 people have joined it in 2022, half of which are engineers.

It said it plans to recruit a further 700 robotics engineers in fields such as computer vision, machine learning, sensors and mechatronics over the next five years.

The Dyson 360 Eye robot vacuum cleaner at a Berlin trade show in September 2014.
The Dyson 360 Eye robot vacuum cleaner at a Berlin trade show in September 2014. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

Robots are widely used in controlled situations such as on factory production lines, but have yet to break into homes in any significant way beyond the niche but growing market for robotic vacuum cleaners.

Dyson has already launched several robotic vacuums in the past, although its bestsellers remain cordless handheld models.

Jake Dyson, the son of the founder who now works as the company’s chief engineer, said: “This is a ‘big bet’ on future robotic technology that will drive research across the whole of Dyson, in areas including mechanical engineering, vision systems, machine learning and energy storage.”

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Microsoft vulnerabilities down for 2021 • The Register

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Despite a record number of publicly disclosed security flaws in 2021, Microsoft managed to improve its stats, according to research from BeyondTrust.

Figures from the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) show last year broke all records for security vulnerabilities. By December, according to pentester Redscan, 18,439 were recorded. That’s an average of more than 50 flaws a day.

However just 1,212 vulnerabilities were reported in Microsoft products last year, said BeyondTrust, a 5 percent drop on the previous year. In addition, critical vulnerabilities in the software (those with a CVSS score of 9 or more) plunged 47 percent, with the drop in Windows Server specifically down 50 percent. There was bad news for Internet Explorer and Edge vulnerabilities, though: they were up 280 percent on the prior year, with 349 flaws spotted in 2021.

BeyondTrust commented that analysis had been simplified by Microsoft’s move to the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS), although an unfortunate side effect meant that security gurus can now determine the impact of administrative rights on critical vulnerabilities.

“From 2015 to 2020,” said the report, “removing admin rights could have mitigated, on average, 75 percent of critical vulnerabilities.”

It’s a very good point: keeping permissions to the bare minimum is excellent practice, although difficult to enforce.

The decline in vulnerabilities marks a change for Microsoft. In 2016, the count of vulnerabilities stood at 451, according to the report. By 2020 they had leapt to 1,268. A drop, even if only to 1,212, is a first. It’s just as well since between 2019 and 2020, there was a 48 percent rise in vulnerabilities year on year.

And the trendiest categories are…

The report also drilled into vulnerability categories. Topping the table with 326 and 588 vulnerabilities respectively were Remote Code Execution and Elevation of Privilege flaws, with the latter up from 559 in 2020. RCE was itself down in 2021 from 345 in the prior year.

Explaining the apparent explosion in Edge and Internet Explorer numbers (349 vulnerabilities up from 92 in 2020), BeyondTrust pointed to a consolidation in the browser market and a renewed focus on browser attacks as exploited plugins (such as Flash) were dropped and bug bounties made reporting vulnerabilities more financially attractive. It also pointed out that only six were critical (a record low).

The decline in Windows vulnerabilities was attributed to Microsoft’s efforts to improve the security architecture of its supported products, as was the fall in Windows Server holes. The move from security as an afterthought to something front and center is also a factor, even if it has taken a few iterations of operating systems.

That said, there were some spectacular holes in the company’s products during 2021. Last year’s Exchange Server vulnerabilities, for example, left many administrators scrambling to patch systems. 2021’s stability, from the standpoint of Microsoft’s vulnerabilities, must be considered alongside the rapid rises of previous years.

As the report authors note, simply patching the problems might not deal with the underlying issues. Removing admin rights and privileges also play a part in reducing the attack surface. ®

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Ford’s new car safety tech can automatically reduce vehicle speed

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The new Ford Geofencing Speed Limit Control system alerts a driver when the car breaks a speed limit – then slows down the vehicle.

Speed limit signs may soon be a thing of the past as Ford is now trialling connected vehicle technology that can automatically reduce a car’s speed in certain zones to improve road safety.

Up to 29pc of all road fatalities in Europe, depending on the country, are pedestrians and cyclists, according to a 2020 report by the European Transport Safety Council. Setting up speed limits in certain areas is one of the frontline measures to minimise road accidents.

Future Human

Now, US carmaker Ford is testing its new Geofencing Speed Limit Control system across two German cities, Cologne and Aachen, to see if the technology can help in making roads safer, preventing fines for drivers and improving the appearance of roadsides.

A geofence is a virtual parameter in a real-world area. It is often used by mobility companies and start-ups, such as Ireland’s Zipp Mobility, to identify and enforce low-speed zones in cities.

How does it work?

Ford’s new system uses geofencing technology to alert a driver through the dashboard when the vehicle enters an area with a designated speed limit. It then lowers the vehicle speed to match the limit automatically.

However, the driver can override the automated system and deactivate speed limit control at any time. They can also use the technology to set their own geofencing zones at speed as low as 20kmph.

“Connected vehicle technology has the proven potential to help make everyday driving easier and safer to benefit everyone, not just the person behind the wheel,” said Michael Huynh, manager of City Engagement Germany at Ford Europe.

“Geofencing can ensure speeds are reduced where – and even when – necessary to help improve safety and create a more pleasant environment.”

Ford already has in-built assistance technologies that help drivers ensure they are abiding by speed limits. However, the new geofencing speed limit control system is the first that can automatically reduce a vehicle’s speed without the driver’s intervention.

Eyes on the road

The year-long trial that runs until March 2023 is collaboration between the Ford City Engagement team, city officials in Cologne and Aachen, and Ford software engineers in Palo Alto, California.

Together with colleagues in Aachen, the Palo Alto engineers developed technology that connects the vehicle to the geofencing system for GPS tracking and data exchange.

Germany has more than 1,000 types of road signs, which can often confuse drivers and distract them from the road ahead. Geofencing technologies such as the new Ford system can help drivers stay focused.

“Our drivers should benefit from the latest technical support, including geofencing based assistant systems that enable them to keep to the speed limits and fully concentrate on the road,” said Dr Bert Schröer of AWB, a Cologne waste disposal company involved in the trial.

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