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).
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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."
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.