Road to nowhere: Could drones be the highways of the future?

ImageCNN) — Going off-road used to mean tearing up dirt tracks in a powerful four-by-four or gigantic monster truck.

For the ambitious entrepreneurs at Matternet however, the term has come to comprise something more subtle and, potentially, revolutionary.

For the past 18 months the tech start-up has been working towards creating a roving network of automated drones that will help connect rural and under-developed areas with little or no access to existing road or highway systems.

While the idea may sound far-fetched to those unfamiliar with the latest in civilian drone technology, preliminary vehicle testing has already taken place.

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“The easiest way to describe what we are doing is to compare how mobile telephony has taken off in the developing world,” said Matternet founder and CEO, Andreas Raptopoulos.

“(We want) to leapfrog the traditional modes of transportation infrastructure in a similar way and bring items through these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to people who may otherwise be cut off or isolated,” he added.

The easiest way to describe what we are doing is to compare how mobile telephony has taken-off in the developing world
Andreas Raptopolous, Matternet

A network of drones

The idea stems from when Raptopoulos led a research group including the company’s three other co-founders at the Singularity University in Silicon Valley.

They envisioned employing a fleet of drones with a two kilogram payload capacity and a six mile flight-range.

These automated vehicles would be complimented on the ground by a vast network of strategically positioned hubs, enabling drones to recharge their batteries every few miles before continuing to the next station (where the recharging process is repeated) or final destination.

Control of the drones and the assignment of packages for delivery would eventually be handled by an automated operating system. Orders or requests could then be placed and paid for by cell phone.

The potential applications, Raptopoulos explained, include delivery of medicines to disconnected areas, enabling farmers to supply products directly to customers and providing vital materials to areas cut off by natural disasters.

In the future, he adds, the concept could also be adapted to enhance the transport or distribution systems of large cities.

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So far, Matternet have reached the stage of conducting initial trials of “quadrocopter” drones, which took place in Haiti and the Dominican Republic last year.

While happy with the results, Raptopolous believes the concept needs more testing before commercial or civilian deployment can be considered.

But the fledgling outfit are not alone in their ambitious endeavors.

On the analogue internet you are still sending packages but these are physical
Arturo Pelayo, ARIA Logistics

Internet of actual things

Aria (Autonomous Roadless Intelligent Array) — set up by students from the same Singularity University class but concentrating more on developing an open source system and ground network — hopes to bring its version of the technology to this year’s Burning Man festival in Nevada.

It’s exploring ways to deliver locally sourced fruit and vegetables via drone in Auckland, New Zealand.

According to Aria co-founder, Arturo Pelayo, a hyper-connected AUV network creates the possibility of a physical delivery system so dense and interconnected that is in effect an “analogue internet.”

“On the internet you send digital packages. On the analogue internet you are still sending packages but these are physical,” he said.

“We see the opportunity to create these very flexible networks serviced by these systems and ground hubs — which could even be something as basic as a disused shipping container — over very large areas,” he added.

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As the technology develops further, Pelayo believes they will overcome the drones’ principle limitations — namely the short distances they can travel and small weight they are currently able to carry.

He also highlights cost benefits as a significant factor in making the technology attractive to potential users.

Counting the cost

Raptopolous agrees and points to a Matternet case study of the Maseru district of Lesotho, which put the price of a network of 50 base-stations and 150 drones at just $900,000 — comparing favorably against $1 million for a two kilometer, one-lane road.

The idea of Matternet is not to replace systems where they work well but really to compliment them
Andreas Raptopolous, Matternet

But while enthusiastic about these figures Raptopolous emphasizes that he doesn’t see drones replacing roads or highways any time soon.

Roads, after all, still carry the obvious benefit of being able to transport people and cater for much larger and heavier loads.

“The idea of Matternet is not to replace systems where they work well but really to compliment them,” he said. “We initially see these devices coming in where existing systems break (like in a natural disaster) or where there is a chance to improve existing infrastructure,”

External factors such as how small drones perform in bad weather, how they interact with other aircraft as well as public perceptions of devices best known for their operation in a military theater will also have to be overcome, he admits.


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