When Domino’s sent two pepperoni pizzas on a 10-minute drone flight last summer in a publicity stunt to demonstrate how takeaways may be delivered in the future, Andreas Raptopoulos reacted with scorn.
“This is total nonsense. Why the hell would you do that? The public risk to transport a pizza around when you can do it perfectly well with all of the infrastructure you already have there? Why don’t you use the same technology to save somebody’s life when a mother needs medicine or a child needs medicine instead of it being stuck on a lorry on a muddy road. To me, this is where technology works best,” the Greek entrepreneur said.
Raptopoulos had had his eureka moment about the possibilities opened up by drones two years earlier. The night before a presentation at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University – which aims to encourage business leaders to use technology to solve humanitarian problems – it had struck him that a network of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could deliver medical supplies across parts of the developing world inaccessible by road.
That idea soon became a start-up called Matternet – a network for transporting matter – which aims to help the one billion people who do not have year-round access to roads.
Raptopoulos said the new system would be used to leapfrog the building of infrastructure, in the same way mobile networks have overtaken fixed lines in poorly connected countries.
In this case, eight-propeller UAVs can be used to transport small items weighing up to 2kg, establishing a potentially lifesaving connection decades before a modern road network could be built.
“Somehow the world caught on to this idea of using a technology [drones], which has a really bad reputation, for a really good cause and try to give the developing world not an example of following what the west has done but to figure out that there is a better way – to do for transportation what we did for communications,” Raptopoulos said.
In sub-Saharan Africa, 85% of roads are inaccessible during the wet season, cutting off huge swaths of the population and hindering the transport of medical supplies, he said.
There are three parts to the system delivering medical goods: the UAVs themselves, landing stations where packages can be dropped off and transferred, and the software that ensures vehicles get securely from point to point. Because of their short battery life, networks of drones are needed to work together, shuttling between ground stations, said Raptopoulos. “Instead of one vehicle running for 60 minutes, there would be six for 10 minutes each,” he said. “If you only fly between those [ground station] points, you know where those points are and [what is] around them. If there is a mountain, you know how to avoid it.”
He added: “Then your job becomes connecting those two ground stations in the same way every time. Our concept is having those ground stations physically placed where you need them in order to put loads in the system.”
The operating system would also ensure that drones would not collide with each other.
Matternet has carried out test runs in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Lesotho, in the middle of an Aids epidemic, has been identified by the company as somewhere the system could usefully transport laboratory samples around the countryside. A pilot is planned there for later this year.
The company is part of a hope that came from the Singularity University that drones could become less a military tool than one with practical uses in the developing world.
“When you think of all the robotics companies in the world, I don’t know any whose first customer was not military. This is how robotics companies are built,” Raptopoulos said. “We thought: screw that, we are going to replace the military with the humanitarian.
“I have a huge bias but I have not seen any application that I think is more important, more inspiring. We have this impression of robots being scary and taking our jobs. What if you took them to a place that really needs them and save lives?”
Most of the nine Matternet staff are based in a Palo Alto office, while the remainder work from London. Four investors have put money into the company and it aims to raise between $3m (£1.8m) and $5m more in its next round of funding, in exchange for an undisclosed stake in the company.
Aid agencies are being targeted as first users, Raptopoulos said, and pharmaceutical and logistics organisations will also be approached. Sales to the military have been ruled out. Ideally, villages would be able to buy the drones and base stations and transport items between themselves.
“Anybody can basically set up the transportation networks. It is decentralised. You don’t need governments, you don’t need big companies,” Raptopoulos said.
“We won’t replace trucks and trains but we are talking about helping these people leapfrog so that they have basic healthcare and maybe not build roads in the way we have. The thing I am spending most of my time on is how we show that this system can work in the field.
“Then, once we prove that and start scaling, there are all sorts of problems, like how do you make sure you have safety at scale and that thieves are not stealing [the drones]. I call them happy problems.” He added: “We are set up as a for-profit company and our goal is to change the world and we believe that profit will follow that. Somehow I feel the companies of the future are going to be like that.”
What it costs
Approximate costings from Matternet put the price of unmanned aerial vehicles at £6,000 each and ground stations at £3,000 each. A network of five ground stations and 10 UAVs, as well as setup and training, would cost a charity in the region of £90,000, according to Raptopoulos. An eight-propeller drone can carry 2kg and travel 10km in good weather. Batteries need to be replaced every 600 cycles. “If [charities] know that this works and they know that it saves lives, it is not that big an amount,” he said.
Source: The Economist