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Matternet would use UAVs to deliver supplies to remote villages

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August 31, 2011

The Matternet is a proposed internet-like network, that would allow goods such as medicine...

The Matternet is a proposed internet-like network, that would allow goods such as medicine to be transported to remote communities via unmanned aerial vehicles (Image: Cyber Technology (WA) Pty/Ltd)

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Across Africa, along with other parts of the world, there are many villages that are inaccessible by road for at least part of the year. The only reasonably fast way of getting medicine and other essential goods to these locations is to fly them in by conventional aircraft. Such an approach can be costly, however, and requires the services of a trained pilot. Matternet, a startup company currently based out of Silicon Valley's Singularity University is proposing an alternative - a network of ground stations for small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which would inexpensively deliver payloads to remote communities.

Matternet is presently in the process of designing the electric quadrocopters that would be used within the system. While they can currently carry a one-kilogram load for three kilometers (2.2 lbs for 1.9 miles), the group's target range is ten kilometers (6.2 miles) - ultimately, they would also like to see the UAVs able to carry up to 1,000 kilograms (2,205 lbs).

This does not mean, however, that the system would only serve villages within ten kilometers of a city or road. Instead, the UAVs would take off and land from ground stations located in the villages, where local people could swap in batteries that had been charged by a solar-powered charger, along with performing other maintenance. In this way, the vehicles could make their way from village to village, until they reached their destination.

"A good analogy is the Internet," Matternet's Justine Lam told Gizmag. "In the same way that the Internet works by transferring packets of information, villages that are far away from roads or cities will receive packets of goods through a network routing system."

A depiction of how the Matternet network might be routed throughout Africa

Such an arrangement is not in the group's immediate plans, however. It hopes to start with a simple point-to-point system, where goods are simply ferried back and forth between two locations. A complete kit for such a set-up, which would include one UAV and two ground stations, should sell for about US$2,500. According to Matternet, its operating costs would be similar to those of a motorcycle.

In the later phases of the project, when it does become a network, users could buy or rent the equipment, and subscribe to the service - one would assume that governments or charitable organizations would cover those costs for impoverished villages. An artificial intelligence-driven logistics system would handle the traffic, and optimize cargo routing.

The video below outlines the vision for the project.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
12 Comments

Bill Lishman, of Father Goose fame, had a more practical solution for this application using ultralight aircraft with detachable pods. More economical and of greater range. I wonder what happened to his invention.

jholman
31st August, 2011 @ 06:20 am PDT

There have been a few proposals most of them a lot more realistic than this one. This one has so many basic problems in the concept. The quad platform is nice and stable in a hover but power hungry and rather inefficient in forward flight resulting in high power use or extremely short range or low cargo capacity. The same power in a fixed wing UAV will give a hundred km range or more while carrying more cargo faster. That's today technology not future wishful thinking.

Do these guys have a clue just how much food supplies etc $2500 would buy in most of Africa. This wouldn't be able to deliver that much before the battery packs were worn out. I get the impression that no one involved has set foot outside of silicon valley.

Wragie Wrawagie
31st August, 2011 @ 11:11 am PDT

The concept has merit. I would strongly advise the proponents to consider using the knowlege of the folks at FedEx to set up the logistics. They set up a network which, at its start, some folks thought was impossible.

jad
31st August, 2011 @ 11:48 am PDT

@jholman

Thank you for that. I enjoyed the Father Goose story which I hadn't seen before.

To answer your question, have a look at the AirFirstAid.com website. As an aside, I think the website design is pretty cool, too.

Patrick Corliss
31st August, 2011 @ 12:35 pm PDT

Replace electric with a high density power source, and the quadrocopter with fixed wing, or tilt rotor and it might work.

For years in Africa mail was moved by a DC-3 that did not land at every village. The mail was in a container at the end of a long rope. The pilot would drop the container into the designated spot, and then fly a slow post turn, keeping one wing pointed at the container while the local postmaster would remove the mail destine for his delivery area, and add his outgoing mail. the pilot would then fly to the next village and repeat.

A fixed wing UAV could do the same thing.

Slowburn
31st August, 2011 @ 12:44 pm PDT

impossible, and incredibely expensive, and unefficient flight for such needs, altough the idea of the network is great! thanks for the inspiration and for pointing your efforts towards a nice cause :)

Daniel Plata Baca
31st August, 2011 @ 02:57 pm PDT

Skynet is coming and will start with taking over Africa to see if it is feasible enought to do it on a global scale , LOL

Here they come.......

Jim Andrews
31st August, 2011 @ 04:09 pm PDT

A bit stupid actually - this idiot version of the facebook friending network, clicking on all the links on the screen, does not translate well into doing drop off's of real world goods, across real world terrain.

What bugs me with this bullshit, is that the average income, and the cost of infrastructure, the amount of just incremental bullshit on a step by step basis, battery swaps, charging stations, infinitely large amounts of short hops, and the actual design of the vehicle - that even an idiot with a pencil and paper can do the basic sums, and work out that compared what is already available - that this REALLY stupid and expensive idea.

There is currently in stock and up and running - all the technology, and hardware and software, to make a reasonably good, cost effective solar powered, battery charged, LARGE UAV, capable of carrying 100Kg with "bomb bay" parachute drops of bubble wrapped packages on the fly over - with a range of 200 or so Km.

A pack of postage stamps in 10Km hops - across a LARGE country? - Where do these people dream this crap up?

Are people really THIS stupid?

Mr Stiffy
31st August, 2011 @ 09:47 pm PDT

Great scheme, there, MrStiffy, sounds like you have it knocked.

Go ahead...do it.

FastGuy
1st September, 2011 @ 12:31 pm PDT

I think they will end up with a hybrid quad copter/ tilt rotor design with a big fixed wing and a fuelling station. The concept is good but it will needed to skip many stations to be viable. 20 times the range. It may be possible to craft a system where the payload and battery unit are separate drones. The power drones drop off to recharge and are replaced in the air by another. In flight coupling should not be that tricky or expensive for unmanned vehicles. A solar drone that only lands to pick up cargo and fuel booster pods should work. There are many places in the western world where this may also be viable.

Wesley Bruce
1st September, 2011 @ 09:29 pm PDT

As many here has pointed out this is an energy guzzling scheme, and the smaller the 'copters' are the more energy inefficient they are, needing more and more energy to transport a certain amount of load.

And batteries are only good for a set number of recharges, say 800, before their capacity drops off so much that the 'copters' can't take off with any payload, and you need to have electricity generated all over the place to charge the batteries - if ground transport doesn't work I bet there is little, or no, electricity available there either! So the small 'copters' will be very busy carrying spare batteries further inland, and also solar arrays, and windmill generators.

And what happens if the things drop out of the sky and hurts someone?! Will the creators of this scheme take up the tab for medicare, damage to crops, or other kinds of installations, or vehicles (I bet their lawers will become very rich)?! A drone like these falling through the windscreen of your car, from altitude would possibly fatal. Small toy helicopters can kill you, these brutes will not be any different!

Carrier pigeons are probably better, and taste better, too!

Tord S Eriksson
4th September, 2011 @ 09:06 pm PDT

Quadrocopters are extremely maneuverable, but when it comes to capcity, speed and range, they leave a great deal to be desired. I think this project would be far more successful with a winged airframe that was VTOL capable. Single motor, single prop, tail-sitter for takeoff and landing.

-jcr

John C. Randolph
5th September, 2011 @ 03:01 am PDT
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