While completing summer courses at Singularity University, social entrepreneur Andreas Raptopoulos conceived a plan to deliver life-saving materials to remote and isolated communities throughout the Global South. That idea has now turned into a company that utilizes unmanned aerial vehicles (UVAs), called Matternet.
Matternet has taken an innovative technology that is commonly associated with destruction and turned it into a system that creates positive change. The drones being used have revolutionized the way that supplies are delivered to those in need.
It’s estimated that 1 billion people worldwide live without access to all-season roads. In many countries, rainy seasons completely destroy temporary roads, and remote communities are cut off from any outside resources. This makes it extremely difficult to transport goods. In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 85 percent of roads are washed out during the rainy season. As a result, livelihoods are put in danger, and help isn’t always provided in time when desperately needed.
Maternet’s focus is on delivering medical supplies to remote communities that are cut off from other modes of transportation, as well as transporting materials for medical tests from clinics to larger hospitals. Life-saving supplies can easily be transported with drones, and done much faster, than relying on traditional methods involving vehicles. The increased speed would also help patients get lab results back sooner and begin necessary treatments if needed.
Raptopoulos estimates that the distance it takes a vehicle to cover in one day could be covered by a drone in roughly 30 minutes using the three-tiered system he’s developed, which include the UVAs, landing stations, and the actual software needed to control the drones. The drones unfortunately have a short battery life, so items would need to be regularly dropped off and picked up at the landing stations by the next drone in line. They can travel about 10km each before needing to be recharged. The system would see items passed along until they reach the final destination. The issue, however, is that the line of landing stations would have to be pre-established from one point to another, and cannot be easily moved.
Successful trial runs have been conducted in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The paths are routes that need to be frequently travelled, and have so far not caused any issues. Despite the drones only being able to carry 2 kilograms at a time, they have so far successfully lived up to the goal of reaching “anyone, anywhere.”
In September or 2014, another set of trail runs will take place with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), working out of Tokyo, to transport tuberculosis medications to clinics and medical centers in remote areas. The goal is to reach those in need in only a few short hours, rather than the traditional few days it takes by vehicle.
Another future project has been planned for regions throughout Lesotho where HIV/AIDS is rampant. Many people who travel to remote clinics do not receive test results or medications for long periods of time simply because they are not easily accessible by ground transportation. With the drones put in place, test results can be delivered much faster, along with any necessary medication. The new system of air travel will positively affect many people in dire need of medical attention and supplies.
While there has been some criticism against the limited ability of the UVAs, there are still many positive aspects to Matternet’s project. Knowing where landing strips are makes for easy navigating, ensures the drones won’t crash into each other while airborne, and if something were to go wrong, the immediate area to search would be known. They also operate at seemingly low costs, given the technology used. The drones cost roughly £6,000 each, with the landing stations costing roughly £3,000 each to set up. These costs are much lower than the millions that some aid agencies spend on logistical nightmares of delivering supplies to remote areas using various planes, helicopters, and various ground vehicles.
With funding currently in place from Singularity Labs, Matternet is hoping to begin approaching aid agencies in the near future to sell their innovative technology and begin accessing remote and isolated communities across the Global South.
For more information, you can check our their website or listen to the TED talk below.