Matternet CEO Tells TED Global Internet of Drones Could Positively Impact a Billion

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A billion people have no access to all-season roads. Over three billion live in cities or megacities. Quick access to goods faces either impassible mud or impenetrable gridlock. But Singularity University Labs startup, Matternet, has a plan.

Speaking to an audience at TED Global last summer, co-founder and CEO, Andreas Raptopoulos said Matternet is “a new idea about a network for transportation that is based on the ideas of the internet.”

Instead of packets of information, Matternet will transport goods using a network of autonomous electric drones, landing stations, and an operating system to keep it all running.

Drones would deliver medicine in developing countries with poor road infrastructure, in urban environments, even after natural disasters. Matternet estimates they can move two kilograms 10 kilometers for just $0.24.

Their tagline is “drones for good,” and one can see the appeal. In sub-Saharan Africa, 80% of roads are unusable in the wet season, Raptopoulos said. It may take an estimated 50 years and billions of dollars to catch-up on road infrastructure.

But it could be said hardwired telecommunications infrastructure faced a similar battle a decade ago. Cell phone technology “leapfrogged” hard lines in favor of wireless in developing countries. Might robotic drones do the same for roads?

Matternet conducted its first trials in Haiti last summer and have since garnered funding and expanded their team. Co-founder, Paola Santana, told me they’ll have some tech updates in the beginning of 2014.

It’s an audacious plan and not without its challenges. The network will need to find consistent energy sources in rural areas during bad weather. The drones have to be tough enough to put up with high winds and rain.

And what’s to prevent thieves from picking up a drone and walking home with it. Security guards? Fences? Might that up the cost of the network? Then they'll need to overcome the regulatory issues and controversy surrounding drones.

Raptopoulos said they didn’t shy away from the challenge when they were told it was a crazy idea early on. Quite the opposite. Challenges can be overcome, and Matternet’s impact could be significant.

“Imagine one billion people being connected to physical goods in the same way mobile telecommunication connected them to information.”

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 6 Responses

  • why06 December 2, 2013 on 5:00 pm

    Cool stuff. Interesting that the Amazon thing came out the same day I saw this article. Is this the new wave of transportation? idk it seems cool and i definitely like it.

  • arpad December 3, 2013 on 6:05 am

    The coinciding of this announcement with Jeff Bezos’ announcement of Amazon’s interest in the same idea is interesting. Especially in view of the lack of information that’s come out of Matternet till now. It’d be a lot easier to believe Matternet’s actually pursuing it’s stated goals, rather then providing a nice paycheck for its cast of characters, if there were more in the way of reported achievements.

  • Andrew Atkin December 4, 2013 on 12:45 am

    There is a place for this for emergencies, and extreme low density living, but the future cargo-drone for mass western civilisation will operate, in part, on cheap designated highways – due to the noise problem. This will ultimately be much more efficient still.

    Noise: There is the possibility of developing anti-noise technology with loudspeakers integrated with ducted fans (producing the opposite, cancelling sound wave to the fans). This could be an interesting possibility. With direct integration, it might be effective for suppressing even high sound frequencies.

  • Facebook - andy.spreadbury.7 December 4, 2013 on 10:48 pm

    Add to this the Google news today about buying up robotics companys, maybe matternet can expand to road network delivery as well. I imagine a similar hub and spoke delivery system but maybe better called a hub and cell. Have a central delivery hub for the long distances and a system of cells(geographic areas) serviced by a number of vehicles. The package is taken to the hub and several loaded onto automatic delivery vehicles. These then move through the cell surrounding the hub, doing deliveries and collections within that cell but also passing off packages to other vehicles at the cell edges for onwaard delivery or passing to the next cell. Maybe there will be secure automated drop off / pick up points at the edges of each cell to act as a way station between cells. Short distance delivery, within a hub area could be achieved by routing the parcel between the cells without the need of the central hub.

  • rikwarren August 7, 2014 on 2:23 pm

    Very interesting project but much of what I understand you seek exists. Is Matternet interested in third party relationships providing some of the solutions efficiently and in a proven manner?

    Rik Warren