While Amazon and NASA are working to integrate drones into existing businesses and infrastructures, the future of commercial drones could lie with Matternet, a small Silicon Valley startup with big plans.
Matternet was formed out of a team from Singularity University in 2011 and has since received over a million dollars in funding from marquee investors such as Andreessen Horowitz and Fadi Ghandour. Co-founders Andreas Raptopoulos and Paola Santana have each done their own TED Talks and appeared all over the web, including in an interview with Katie Couric.
It’s clear Raptopoulos and Santana believe in drones and are itching to spread the word but how, exactly, is Matternet going to catapult drones into the mainstream?
A Network of Matter That Matters
It is fairly well known Amazon wants to use drones to drop packages on your doorstep. But, as Santana told Dronelife in a recent interview, “e-commerce is just a little piece of what you can move with a UAV…we are focused on applications related to moving things that are low weight and have significant impact in the world.”
Rather than delivering books and gallons of live ladybugs to you neighbors, Matternet is working on using drones as part of a network to provide medical aid to the worlds most remote human populations.
And the way in which they are going about doing this showcases the benefits of unmanned aircraft system (UAS) technology, how to responsibly integrate UAS into a nation’s airspace and the amazing potential of a future filled with automated vehicles.
The Matternet network has three components: the drone, the ground station and the software.
When the system is implemented properly, minimal human interaction is required.
The drones only fly from one ground station to another so the landing pads -which can double as a charging station- are a part of the automated flight of the drone. (With regards to how the drone flies through space without colliding into the side of a mountain or another drone, NASA is on the case.)
“We call it extreme automation which means not only is the UAV autonomous in the air, but the system is also autonomous on the ground,” Santana said. “So if a UAV needs to fly 40 kilometers, it would take off, know and be able to stop at an intermediate ground station, drop a battery that is depleted and pick one up the is fully charged…and this mechanism would be fully automated. It can fly, exchange a battery and can go on without any human intervention.”
The final component of the network is Matternet’s monitoring software, which not only tracks each vehicle, but the entire flow of goods and materials being transported by the system.
So how does a small team of engineers go about building this Rube Goldberg-ian network?
Learning to walk and run (and fly) at the same time.
Matternet builds everything in house, trying different designs until something feels right.
When building their first drone, it was all about discovering what was available and shoehorning it into their vision.
“It’s like building a car,” Santana explained, “You use some of your own parts, you buy the radio from someone else… you are just taking the best of what’s out there to put into it.”
As that first drone was coming together, Matternet eyed their first field test.
In 2012, Matternet flew their first field test in Haiti and the Dominican Republic with the intention to establish a baseline for implementing a highly sophisticated system in a developing country.
“We wanted to know what it feels like to go from absolute zero and start working with the aviation authorities, the ministry of health, the Prime Minister or President and take it from there,” Santana said. “So the DR and Haiti were about learning to set up a process where you start at the executive government level and then you scale it out. And then we did some trials there but the geography and the climate was not all that challenging.”
Tackling the Issue Head On
Fast-forward two years (which the team spent further developing their drones and software), Matternet decided to up the ante this year and took the system to the Himalayan nation of Bhutan– one of the most geographically diverse countries in the world.
But it was about more than just the challenge; it mattered.
Bhutan has 0.3 physicians per 1,000 people spread over some of the most impassable mountains and valleys in the world…to say nothing about the fact that Bhutan has 5 seasons (autumn, winter, spring, summer and monsoon).
So it goes without saying that, given the time of year, reaching a medical clinic can be impossible.
“It was high impact/high reward,” Santana said “There are no other alternatives; there are no roads.”
The risks associated with using a drone to deliver medical supplies in such a remote location was nothing compared to trying the same concept in, say, San Francisco. And successful trials could have powerfully positive outcomes.
Plus, according to Santana this allowed the team to test the drones in some of planet Earth’s most extreme conditions:
“We needed to know all the electronics would work well under monsoon rain, at altitude and the sensors wouldn’t go crazy when it was very cold.”
When I spoke to Santana, some of the Matternet team was still in Bhutan, but initial reports are encouraging.
“We have 100 percent perfection with our [UAS and software] technology. We are still working out the nitty gritty, but initial reports are that every flight was completed to perfection,” Santana said proudly.
And why shouldn’t she be proud? Matternet has found a market for their initial product and they have struck gold with a PR double whammy: While publicizing their humanitarian applications of drones does wonders for public perception here in the U.S, Matternet is also demonstrating the benefits autonomous vehicles as part of an end-to-end solution.
They are solving a third-world problem with a first-world solution.
The irony is it’s a situation that, under current government regulations, “doesn’t [and couldn’t] exist here in the U.S.”
The Apple Approach
However, despite all the positive feedback, Santana says we are about four years away from seeing Matternet operating at its full capacity so the FAA has time to figure out the rules.
But Santana doesn’t want to wait a moment longer than she has to; when Matternet is ready, she wants to fly. That is why her team is working with the FAA, Congress, White House, NASA and even has an NDA with Amazon – to speed along the process of regulation and ensure it doesn’t hinder innovation. (Santana wouldn’t go into details about Matternet’s dealings with Amazon but she did say they are “in the same mindset and we don’t see Amazon as a competitor.”)
When the Matternet does go online, Santana says, it will be structured similarly to Apple:
“We build the hardware and the software; we do the whole stack of technology and then… you buy the suite. You download the application, you get a Matternet vehicle and high-command instructions for it. Then our software would make sure the drone is flying properly and autonomously. What we are trying to create the same experience as when you buy an iPhone or a Mac. You don’t need someone to show you how to operate it. You just open it up and start using it.”
Customers will pay for the hardware and then license the use of the software.
As far as who those customers will actually be, Santana believes it will start at the top and matriculate down to our everyday lives:
“It’s a robot. Anybody can have a robot. Today, robots can become commonplace just like smartphones. So the people using it [at first] would be governments -specifically health related organizations and institutions- but the technology is going to move from that market very quickly to e-commerce companies, logistics, distribution companies and then just regular people. Imagine being able to send something quickly to your office or to your mom … these things will become ubiquitous.”
Some Assembly Required
Peace of mind is sold separately, but Matternet has provided a case study for UAS and autonomous flight with obvious merit. Nobody is going to argue against their work in Bhutan.
That is why the team is being as vocal about their work as possible. (Seriously, the TED Talks are worth a watch).
The more people see autonomous drones used effectively, the easier it is going to be to convince the naysayers to let the drones fly.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com