Drone Fleets Will Deliver Supplies to Those in Need
The tiny drones would carry medical supplies and consumer goods.
Consider it the Droney Express.
As cellphones took communication from wires to the air, Paola Santana envisions flying drones taking deliveries from the highways to the airways.
"We want to change the way infrastructure is seen," said Santana, co-founder of drone-delivery startup Matternet. "What if you could turn [the concept of] roads into something that is more flexible?" She spoke up from the audience during a panel on drones at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas, last week. "I can send something straight to you," she said. "I don't have to build anything. It just goes."
A true drone has GPS and autopilot technology so it can find its own way without anyone working a remote control.
Delivery by drone could relieve road congestion in cities such as Los Angeles or New York, she said. But the impact would be bigger where roads are few and unreliable— places like Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where Matternet has been testing drone deliveries.
"Poverty is lack of access for a whole variety of things," said Santana. Topping her list are medications — which are small and light, but very valuable. She also foresees ferrying medical samples from local clinics to labs for analysis.
Today's drones aren't able to carry much more, anyway. While the military operates large craft that can bring weapons into combat, most drones are small multi-rotor craft that can carry just a few pounds and stay aloft for about 20 minutes.
But that's enough, said Santana. Matternet's craft can carry up to 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) for 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). If they need to go further, the drones will land, receive freshly charged batteries and continue on their journey. In the future, they might refuel themselves at solar charging stations.
While the U.S. is still working on regulations, due by 2015, for commercial use of drones, island neighbors Haiti and the Dominican Republic are already giving it a try. "We have permission, because the governments understand that they don't have the money to build infrastructure," said Santana. [See also: U.S. Drones Flying in a Legal Gray Area]
Matternet has tested its delivery system in both countries. It plans to set up a full program by the end of the year in the Dominican Republic and two other countries that Santana declined to name.
Matternet is also planning to set up shop in wealthier countries to deliver other small, valuable items such as smartphones, tablets or designer sunglasses. Santana calls this their e-commerce program.
While these projects are still getting off the ground, as it were, Matternet is envisioning what the next decade will bring. "By [year] 20-something, we proceed to human transportation," said Santana.
Matternet isn't the only drone company to dream big. Chris Anderson, the CEO of hobbyist drone company 3D Robotics (and former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine), envisioned a large-scale drone delivery scenario during another a panel at South by Southwest — this one from the top down.
He said he imagines a hypothetical FedEx starting by flying piloted planes in a V formation, then removing pilots from all but the lead plane while the others follow it on autopilot. And finally, none of the planes have pilots.
That would be gradual process, he concedes. But if Matternet does launch its networks this year, it will be a step in that direction.