Driverless taxis start operating in China

A Baidu Apollo Robotaxi passes its customer service counter setup at the Shougang Park in Beijing. (AP)
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Updated 02 May 2021

Driverless taxis start operating in China

  • Vehicles had to repeatdely stop as tourists took photos
  • Passengers can hail taxis on dedicated app

BEIJING: Chinese tech giant Baidu rolled out its paid driverless taxi service on Sunday, making it the first company to commercialize autonomous driving operations in China.
Unlike previous Baidu autonomous driving demonstrations in Beijing, this was the first time there was no safety driver sitting behind the wheel. Instead, a safety member was seated in the front passenger seat to deal with any emergencies.
Up to 10 Apollo “robotaxis” are now operating simultaneously in an area of about 3 square kilometers (1.2 square miles), picking up and dropping off passengers at eight stops in Shougang Park in western Beijing. Each ride costs 30 yuan ($4.60), and is open to passengers ages 18 to 60.
The park is a former site of iron and steel plants that’s been redeveloped into a sightseeing destination and a future venue for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Although traffic flows aren’t heavy, an influx of tourists was seen in the park on the second day of China’s international labor day holiday.
The robotaxis were repeatedly forced to brake when encountering jaywalkers or curious tourists who came close to the vehicles for photos.
Kelly Wang and her husband, who both work in the artificial intelligence industry, said they had a smooth riding experience.
“I would recommend people experience this. There is a strong sense of technology, because nobody is in the driver’s seat,” Wang said. Her husband was even considering buying such a car for their household.
Passengers can order a robotaxi on an app called Apollo Go. When the taxi arrives, passengers must have their identities verified before getting in. The taxi will start to move after it detects the passengers have fastened their seat belts.
One visitor, Amy Li, still had concerns about autonomous driving, because driving behavior on the road can be complex.
“We’ve all had experiences such as other cars jumping the queue or making a sudden lane change. People have emotions while robots don’t, at least at present,” she said “The robots may not be able to deal with such changes.”
Baidu, known for its search engines, has been testing autonomous driving on the open road since last year. Its Apollo Go robotaxi service has carried more than 210,000 passengers in three cities across China and aims to expand to 30 cities in the next three years, the company said in a press release.
“In the future, Baidu Apollo will launch driverless robotaxis in more cities, enabling the public to access greener, low-carbon and convenient travel services, while continuing to improve the unmanned service process and user experience,” said Wang, vice president and general manager of autonomous driving technology at Baidu in a statement.

Saudi budget airline flynas launches first direct flight from Jeddah to Brussels

Updated 03 December 2023

Saudi budget airline flynas launches first direct flight from Jeddah to Brussels

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s budget airline flynas announced on Sunday the inauguration of its first direct flight connecting Jeddah with Brussels.

This move marks a major milestone in flynas’ European expansion, establishing it as the first Saudi national airline to provide direct connectivity between the Kingdom and the heart of the EU, according to a report by the Saudi Press Agency. 

The new route, part of flynas’ growing portfolio of international destinations, is a strategic component of the Saudi Air Connectivity Program. 

This program is a key initiative in line with the National Tourism Strategy, aiming to increase the Kingdom’s global connectivity. 

The strategy aims to draw 150 million tourists and expand Saudi Arabia’s international flight destinations to over 250 by 2030. 

The launch, signifying the strengthening of Saudi-Belgian relations, was attended by key dignitaries, including Pascal Gregoire, the Belgian ambassador to Saudi Arabia. 

The celebratory event at the Brussels Airport was graced by the deputy ambassador of Saudi Arabia in Brussels, Mohammed Moanes, along with representatives from flynas and prominent figures from the travel and tourism sector. 

The Air Connectivity Program, initiated in 2021, is crucial to the Kingdom’s tourism growth. 

It focuses on enhancing Saudi Arabia’s global air links by developing existing and potential flight paths, thereby positioning the region as a leading global tourist destination. 

The program operates as the executive arm of the National Tourism and Aviation Strategies, aiming to foster collaboration and partnerships across public and private sectors in tourism and aviation. 

This route expansion by flynas signifies a step in Saudi Arabia’s aviation capabilities and aligns with the broader vision of diversifying the Kingdom’s economy and enhancing its global standing as a key player in international travel and tourism. 

On Dec. 2, the airline also inaugurated six destinations and routes, including two domestic flights to Abha and Tabuk and four in the international category — to Dubai, Amman, Istanbul and Ankara — to be operated alongside the other four existing destinations from Madinah to Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam and Cairo. 

Global air transport event kicks off in Riyadh

Updated 03 December 2023

Global air transport event kicks off in Riyadh

RIYADH: Representatives from over 100 countries and multinational organizations will assemble in Riyadh for the 15th International Conference on Air Services Negotiations, focusing on enhancing aviation for improved global transport. 

Beginning Dec. 3, the five-day event will attract over 700 civil aviation experts and specialists.   

The ICAN2023 Conference, recognized as the foremost international event in its category, is dedicated to aligning with the swift advancements in the global air transport industry, as reported by the Saudi Press Agency.   

Negotiations and discussions between delegations from different nations are set to take place on both bilateral and multilateral fronts. Moreover, the participants are expected to actively support the establishment of connections between regulatory bodies, air operators, and other relevant service providers.  

The conference will also see the presence of Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Transport and Logistics Saleh bin Nasser Al-Jasser and Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation President Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al-Duailej. 

Ibtisam Al-Shehri, spokesperson for the GACA, mentioned to state TV Al-Ekhbariya that the Kingdom is hosting ICAN for the second time. She added that this edition is the largest yet, with five ministers and 34 heads of global aviation authorities participating in the event.   

The conference, coinciding with World Civil Aviation Day on its last day, will also highlight investment opportunities available in the Kingdom through the country’s National Aviation Strategy. The strategy aims to enhance the capabilities of the Kingdom’s civil aviation sector, positioning it as the leading sector in the Middle East by 2023 in alignment with the Saudi Vision 2023.

The event also aligns with the Kingdom’s National Strategy for Transport and Logistics, aiming to enhance Saudi Arabia’s air connectivity from 99 destinations to over 250 across 29 airports. Furthermore, the strategy seeks to triple annual passenger traffic to reach 330 million. Launched in 2021 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the strategy additionally aims to double the capacity of the air cargo sector to over 4.5 million tons. 

The event is organized by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN agency that facilitates cooperation among 193 countries, allowing them to share their skies for mutual benefit. 

Saudi Arabia’s commitment to global aviation is further underscored by its election to the membership of the ICAO Council for the period 2023-2024-2025. This decision was reached during the 41st General Assembly of the organization held in Montreal, Canada.  

The Kingdom secured its re-election through a voting process involving the participation of all 193 member states of the UN, securing a position in the ICAO Council, which comprises 36 members. 

GACA, MISA and Brazil’s Embraer sign MoU to propel aviation sector investment

Updated 03 December 2023

GACA, MISA and Brazil’s Embraer sign MoU to propel aviation sector investment

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia is set to stay abreast of the latest developments in sustainability and innovation through a new agreement signed by the General Authority of Civil Aviation.   

The memorandum of understanding, inked with the Kingdom’s Ministry of Investment and Brazilian multinational aerospace corporation Embraer, aims to bolster cooperation in aviation sector investments, as stated in an official release.  

This initiative aligns with Saudi Arabia’s ambition to become a leader in the regional aviation sector within the next decade. It also supports the Gulf country’s broader efforts to elevate the aviation sector and achieve its target of attracting 150 million visitors by 2030, up from the initial goal of 100 million.

Under the newly signed deal, the parties will work hand in hand in an attempt to study potential areas for cooperation and investment in the field of aviation. 

In addition, the three entities will also work on exploring and identifying the most suitable investment sources and strategies to support the implementation of such commercial projects. 

Areas of cooperation between the institutions include exchanging knowledge and experiences in air security and safety and planning future projects in the field of commercial aviation, in addition to sustainable technology.

Moreover, other areas of collaboration include aviation supply chain integration, industry and green fuel. 

As the world emerges from the shadows of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia has started reaping the fruit of its efforts to wean its economy off oil by increasing its focus on its travel and tourism sector.  

The Kingdom’s aviation sector is witnessing rapid growth, which many analysts say is not just due to significant investments in airlines but is the result of the ongoing socioeconomic transformation process that began with the launch of Vision 2030 in 2016.  

One of the several measures taken to boost the sector includes the e-visa service launched in 2019, ensuring easy access to millions of potential tourists eager to explore the art, culture, cuisine, archaeological wonders, and natural beauty of the Arabian Peninsula.

“2023 is becoming a year in which Saudi aviation (industry) has moved beyond recovery (mode) and (entered) into an era of unprecedented milestones and achievements,” Mohammed Al-Khuraisi, executive vice president of strategy and business intelligence at GACA, told Arab News in August.

Rising human activity threatens space sustainability, warn experts at COP28

Updated 03 December 2023

Rising human activity threatens space sustainability, warn experts at COP28

DUBAI: A threat to space sustainability has been underscored by experts at COP28 in Dubai, shedding light on the escalating impact of increased human activity. 

During a panel on “Sustainability in Space,” the speakers noted that while space exploration programs were traditionally exclusively led by governments, the entry of the private sector has added complexity to the situation, with a significantly increased number of satellites being launched each year. 

Bruce Carnegie-Brown, chairman, of LIoyd’s of London, a leading insurance firm, said: “We have seen some 9,000 satellites now in Low Earth Orbit, and that has doubled just in the last two years. So, the risks are going up, the frequency of potential collisions is going up, and the debris as a result is hugely on the rise.”  

He added: “We need to put in place things at the outset that force people to clean up after themselves, rather than think about it as an afterthought.”  

According to Nick Shave, CEO of Astroscale, a British space firm, the problem is even more severe. “There are 40,000 objects in space that are anything bigger than about a grapefruit. As you can see, there’s quite a difference in those numbers. And that’s because there’s a lot of fragmentation. We’ve seen different pieces of debris or debris and satellites hit each other and create fragmentation,” Shave explained. 

The increasing incidents of space collisions are even more concerning as the debris simply stays in orbit for decades or even longer, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to remove, warned another expert. 

“If you are in the ocean, or you’re on land or in the air, if something breaks, it kind of comes down, and then you can easily pick it up. If something breaks in space, it’s up there for hundreds of years,” said Robbie Schingler, founder of Planet Labs PBC. 

However, experts added that technologies were being developed to solve the problem. “There are a number of companies, including my company Astroscale, developing what we call active debris removal technology,” said Shave.  

He explained that these technologies go into orbit to assess the debris up close, capture it with robotics or other technologies, bring it down into a lower orbit, and dispose of it in the Earth’s atmosphere.  

Shave added: “There are other ways we are looking to dispose of that forward. So, there are a number of technologies that we’re in the technology proving phase at the moment.” 

Even astronauts, who are currently the only inhabitants of space, believe that more — much more — should be done to protect space. 

“When I am asked about whether I, we are, part of the problem or part of the solution to anthropogenic climate change, I want to be guilty of nothing more than being an ambassador for sustainability. What more can we do? What more should we do to show, not merely say, that our sector is doing to space sustainability for a sustainable Earth?” said Meganne Christian, reserve astronaut and exploration commercialization lead at the UK Space Agency. 


Startup Wrap – Saudi Arabia’s venture landscape receives influx of expanding startups

Updated 03 December 2023

Startup Wrap – Saudi Arabia’s venture landscape receives influx of expanding startups

CAIRO: Saudi Arabia’s entrepreneurial space is getting bigger with more startups raising funding and others expanding into the Kingdom.

On the funding announcement front, Saudi-based business-to-business e-commerce startup Retailo has successfully raised $15 million in a new equity funding round, drawing the attention of both new and returning investors.  

The investor lineup includes Yusuf Bin Kanoo Group, Technology Group, and Majd Digital, alongside previous backers including Aujan Group Holdings, Shorooq Partners, Abercross Holdings, and Graphene Ventures, among others. 

Co-founded in 2020 by Talha Ansari, Wahaj Ahmed, and Mohammad Nowkhaiz, Retailo offers a next-day delivery service for retailers and restaurants, boasting a catalog of over 5,000 stock-keeping units.  

This recent capital infusion marks another significant milestone for the company, following its $36 million series A funding last year, which was a combination of equity and venture debt. 

Retailo’s growth strategy focuses on expanding both its supplier network and customer base. The fresh funds are earmarked to support this expansion within the Saudi market, reinforcing the company’s position as a key player in the region’s e-commerce landscape. 

Adding to its achievements, Retailo has also established several strategic partnerships, including a technology distribution collaboration with Dtonic, a South Korean data solution company.  

This alliance will empower Retailo’s technology by enhancing its service offerings and operational efficiency. 

UAE’s fintech Yabi raises $8m to boost Saudi expansion 

UAE-based fintech startup Yabi has secured an $8 million equity funding round, signifying a major step in its journey towards Saudi expansion and product development.  

The round saw the participation of Al Wafra Al Thanya, joining an array of existing investors in supporting Yabi’s growth. 

This milestone follows closely on the heels of Yabi’s recent foray into the Saudi market, marking an expansion beyond its UAE base.  

Since its launch in the middle of this year, Yabi has been aiming to enhance financial literacy across regional markets. It achieves this through strategic B2B partnerships, integrating its services into employee well-being programs offered by corporate clients. 

Founded by Ambareen Musa, Yabi has rapidly established a client portfolio including prominent entities like Al-Futtaim, Careem, Chalhoub, and Al Ghurair.  

The fresh injection of capital will be instrumental in fueling Yabi’s continued growth. It plans to invest significantly in product development, aiming to bring financial solutions to a broader audience. 

Additionally, the funds will bolster Yabi’s efforts in accelerating its expansion across the Middle East, as it seeks to establish a stronger foothold in key regional markets. 

Oman’s food technology firm KitchenomiKs raises $1.8m to enter Saudi market 

Oman-based food technology startup KitchenomiKs has successfully raised $1.8 million in a pre-series A funding round as it aims to expand its regional footprint. 

Founded by Aankush Bhatia, Aju Samuel, and Shrikanth Shenoy, KitchenomiKs operates as a cloud kitchen with a modern culinary model that steers away from traditional physical storefronts.  

The company currently holds a portfolio of 12 food brands, offering a scalable model for culinary ventures without the burdensome overheads associated with physical restaurant spaces. 

The latest round of funding represents a crucial step in KitchenomiKs’ ambitious growth strategy. A key focus of this strategic plan is the launch of operations in Saudi Arabia, slated for early 2024.  

This significant financial boost, contributed by Omani and regional investors, has elevated the company's total funding to an impressive $3.5 million since its inception in 2022. 

UAE-based Immensa raises $20m to boost product development 

UAE-based Immensa has successfully secured $20 million in its series B equity funding round led by Global Ventures. 

The funding round also saw participation from new investors such as Endeavor Catalyst Fund and EDGO, alongside continued support from Energy Capital Group, Shorooq Partners, and Green Coast Investments. 

Founded in 2016 by Fahmi Al-Shawwa, Immensa specializes in providing on-demand access to spare parts, eliminating the need for mass manufacturing in traditional hubs like Southeast Asia, China, or Latin America.  

This approach not only streamlines the production process but also significantly reduces the lead time and costs associated with traditional manufacturing methods. 

The latest round of funding is poised to turbocharge Immensa’s global growth ambitions. Part of the funds will be allocated to enhance its exclusive software, DIS RT, a critical component in Immensa’s operational toolkit.  

Moreover, the investment will also be channeled towards augmenting its artificial intelligence tools, further solidifying the company’s position in the manufacturing sector. 

UAE’s Flow48 raises $25m in pre-series A round 

Flow48, a UAE-based fintech startup, has successfully secured $25 million in pre-series A funding round in a blend of equity and debt. 

Key investors include Speedinvest, Daphni, and 212, as well as Blockchain Founders Fund, Unpopular Ventures, and Endeavor Catalyst.

Founded in 2022 by Idriss Al Rifai, Flow48 provides services to small and medium-sized enterprises by transforming future revenues of SMEs into immediate capital, offering flexible terms that are tailored to support the growth and scalability of these businesses.  

The freshly acquired funds are earmarked to propel Flow48’s ambitious expansion plans, with a specific focus on penetrating the South African market.  

Egyptian startups receive $10k grants from She’s Next competition 

Three Egyptian startups have emerged as top contenders in the second edition of the She’s Next competition, jointly hosted by Visa and Commercial International Bank. 

Each startup has been awarded $10,000 for their solutions in their respective fields. The winners include Green Fashion, a sustainable clothing brand, Reme-D, a health tech startup, and Fincart, an aggregator of shipping services.  

Alongside the monetary prize, the competition also offered mentorship opportunities provided by the US Agency for International Development to the top 20 contestants.  

Tunisia’s Winshot raises six-figure round from 216 capital 

The Tunisia-originated and France-based software-as-a-service startup Winshot has successfully secured a six-figure investment from 216 Capital.  

Established in 2022 by Walid Mzoughi, Alaa Mokrani, Amjed Bouhouch, and Hela Gabsi, Winshot specializes in providing B2B SaaS solutions for retail operations management.  

With this fresh infusion of capital, Winshot is set to bolster its teams in both France and Tunisia, laying a strong foundation for the expansion and growth of its business. 

Middle East Venture Capital Association signs partnerships with Singapore’s GPCA 

The Global Private Capital Association and the Middle East Venture Capital Association announced a significant strategic partnership during Abu Dhabi Finance Week 2023.  

This collaboration will enable GPCA, headquartered in New York and Singapore, to establish a permanent base in the Middle East. This move will be supported by MEVCA and the broader Abu Dhabi and regional ecosystem. 

Members of MEVCA will benefit from an enhanced membership experience, gaining access to GPCA’s extensive global network. 

The partnership focuses on collaboration, innovation, and investment to strengthen the region’s vibrant venture capital landscape through a range of targeted initiatives.