Drones Reimagined: Startup Plans Medical Supply Drone Network
Drones are bad, or at least that is what we are hearing more and more from groups opposed to their use for military operations. Certainly there is much debate to be had about the ethics and repercussions of using drones in theatres of war, something we will surely look into in future articles. However, what about drones for other purposes, can this technology be re-tooled for a different purpose? One startup is saying yes.
Increasingly we are seeing drones used for different reasons other than in combat. For example, there was a story of a man who created a drone to walk his son 400 metres to the local bus stop. Paul Wallich constructed a quad-copter drone with built in camera, GPS, and compass, and then a GPS homing beacon was placed in his sons backpack so the drone could follow.
A noble pursuit by Mr Wallich, but one he is unlikely to lead into mass production. Matternet, a startup based in the Californian town of Palo Alto do have grander aspirations for their drone project, aspirations that could redefine drone technology, or at the very least give it a whole new perspective.
Matternet has a vision of creating a network of autonomous flying drones that can deliver medical and other vital supplies to regions that either do not have access to such things, or find getting them tough. The drone network would serve areas with no serviceable road access, or places that have been devastated by natural disasters or war.
Matternet’s founder Andreas Raptopoulos detailed the project at last years PopTech conference.
Imagine if we can deliver the medicine within hours or even minutes with a small autonomous flying device, The key here is the autonomy of the solution, there are no humans involved.
Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO and Founder of Matternet
And that autonomy is the key because each drone would need to guide itself to set location via GPS, having manned drones would escalate cost to unachievable levels for the startup. There are certainly enough areas around the world that are in need of such a project, such as vast parts of Africa, Asia, and countries such as Haiti. These regions are for the most part isolated from a properly functioning infrastructure, so a drone carrying vital supplies could be the only chance people in the area have to get such items.
Building roads and trucks is the alternative, albeit an impossible one due to cost. However, cost is also prohibitive for the startup idea, simply because of the logistics. Matternet is not going to fly every drone from its California base, so instead it will need to create a series of base stations around the globe, and each will need to be conveniently located close to targeted regions.
Matternet conducted a case study in 2012 and found that it would require 50 base stations with 150 drones, at a cost of $900,000. On top of this, each flight would cost $0.24 and one would suspect that each station would need to be manned, not to control the drones, but to merely make sure everything is in order, or to load the supplies onto the drones. The company is seeking the funding necessary, and has already conducted trials in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, where it successfully delivered supplies to the people of the country.
Cost will continue to be an issue for Matternet, even if they get the funding to launch the project globally. For example, there is unlikely to be any money made from what on paper looks like a charitable pursuit. Sure, the supplies will come from the vast worldwide infrastructure of aid organizations and charities, but what about continuing to run the drone operation, what about that $0.24 a flight?
The per flight price is actually incalculable on a large scale, simply put how to you define how many flights will be needed, could it be 30 each day, or 300? This is the next hurdle for Matternet, can they advance their innovative idea beyond the testing phase and into a working business model that could see it function in the long term and aid the people it wishes to reach. We suspect some joint ventures will be needed to secure the future of what is at the moment a very intriguing idea.