Good Thinking

Matternet would use UAVs to deliver supplies to remote villages

Matternet would use UAVs to de...
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)
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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A depiction of how the Matternet network might be routed throughout Africa
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A depiction of how the Matternet network might be routed throughout Africa
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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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)
The Matternet UAVs would perform short flights from village to village, in order to reach their destination
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The Matternet UAVs would perform short flights from village to village, in order to reach their destination

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
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.

The Matternet Vision

12 comments
jholman
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.
Facebook User
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.
jad
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.
Patrick Corliss
@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.
Slowburn
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.
Daniel Plata Baca
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 :)
Jim Andrews
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.......
Mr Stiffy
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?
FastGuy
Great scheme, there, MrStiffy, sounds like you have it knocked. Go ahead...do it.
Wesley Bruce
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.