Andreas Raptopoulos wants drones to deliver our stuff. He’s the founder and CEO of Matternet, and he hopes to build networks for “micro-transportation” that will allow unmanned aerial vehicles to ferry all sorts of goods across long distances, especially in places where the roads either suck or are perpetually crammed full of commuters.
Raptopoulos imagines networks of tiny drones that can deliver medical supplies to far-flung areas in the developing world, and he sees delivery drones soaring over the traffic-jammed streets of São Paulo. The little drones will be able cover more ground thanks to waypoint stations that will automatically swap out and recharge their exhausted batteries; eventually, these airborne delivery sentries would fly back and forth autonomously, bouncing across whole regions, no pilot required. I caught up with Raptopoulos at this year’s PopTech conference, and he told me all about how drones and micro-transportation could eventually change the way our stuff moves.
Motherboard: So you want to do something good with drones, for once.
Raptopoulos: Yeah, exactly, I see a lot of opportunity to do good. Our particular goal is to do transportation in places that are not easily accessible. We think we stumbled upon something that can be the next paradigm for micro-transportation. We started thinking: ‘how can we serve places that are not connected by roads?’ Say, many Subsaharan African countries, many South American countries, where you need to deliver medicine, you need to deliver vaccines, you need to move blood samples for HIV—and there’s just no road to allow you to do it reliably.
We started thinking, ‘can we use drones to help us do it?’ So we created a concept—as you know, small UAVs today are very, very capable. They move very reliably, and navigate by GPS and do missions that allow you to carry small loads. Our threshold right now is 2 kilograms, which is about 4 pounds. But the problem they have now is a battery life which doesn’t allow them to travel for long distances. So we created a system that basically allows us to counteract this disadvantage. We use small landing stations that do automatic battery swaps that allow one of those vehicles to land switch batteries and go out again.
What you enable with this thinking is network.
So instead of thinking, ‘let’s have one vehicle here that does this, and it works in isolation of everything else,’ what we thought is that we can have all these vehicles that can be networked together. You can have a small network for the transportation of matter. We think we stumbled upon something that can be the next paradigm for transportation; initially in small goods, and later on, of heavier and heavier goods. The key application can be in medical delivery and also for transportation in places that are very, very congested. For example, Sao Paulo is a city in an economy that is growing very fast. They have a tremendous, tremendous congestion problem. 500 people lose their lives every year on the roads. They have motoboys, 200,000 motoboys delivering packages in the city. We could use our drone technology to help take some load off the roads, do it super reliably, without loosing any lives.
Do you call it a drone, or do you shy away from using the word ‘Drone’?
Drone is a word that we either need to re-appropriate because it doesn’t mean a killing machine, it could be something good. We usually call them UAVs or we call them our flying machines or our vehicles.
Yours have a distinct design, too. Was part of that thinking that you have something that people can distinguish that that this is not a predator drone coming, this is something we can identify with as a good —
Yeah, exactly. We want to make sure that this thing inspires confidence that, first of all, it’s non threatening. And we are working on a specific design so it won’t be a threat to people around it. We are designing features, so that in case of mechanical failures or electrical failures in the air, we have fail-safe mechanisms and things like that. We also protect the blades, so if it bounces into a human, it doesn’t cause any damage. We don’t want it to look like a threatening machine. We want it to look like a good thing.
So what stage of development is Matternet in?
Right now we have a functional machine that we can take out; we developed a code for carrying out autonomous missions and the functional navigation. We are also developing the body of the vehicle and the ground station and the automatic battery swap system capability; this is where we are.
So are you looking at regions where you think you want to test this technology out?
Yes, so we are looking at a few different regions; we started looking at the Dominican Republic as a place with good commercial opportunities, Haiti as a place with good humanitarian opportunities, and we started honing in on that. And we just completed our first trials there at the beginning of September. For this first trial, it was just about identifying a few missions that we wanted to do and then going out there and doing them. We just wanted to test what it was like to fly there; of course there’s going to be a huge variability of weather conditions. There’s a huge difference in doing a mission once or a hundred times, versus leaving something over there to be operating by itself, autonomously with minimal supervision.
And that’s the development part we need to get on. We are at a very, very early stage. So we just went there with the machines; its good thing they fly, it’s a good thing that they fly repeatedly, because, who knows, maybe humidity effects our electronics and we need to rethink how they’re built. So there’s a lot of factors we need to test out.
So what do you think is the future of drones in general? This is clearly a different application of drones than most people are used to hearing about. Do you believe that a project like this will help contribute to a different the perception of drones? Are you looking to change the current perception of drones?
I think the perception of drones will change anyway. They offer wonderful capabilities to a lot of people. Within the civilian space, forget about the military, within the civilian space, there’s good and bad uses of drones, right? So police are using them for police enforcement, maybe people will use them to basically spy on people or whatever; these are bad uses of drones.
On the other hand you have good mapping applications, you have a lot of beautiful scientific applications. And we see a transportation application, very strongly. I think, overall, in that space, we have to be careful that we don’t represent a threat. There is a lot of regulation that ensures that, you know, in order to get permission to fly in, say, San Francisco or somewhere in the Bay Area, you need to have amazing reliability data to convince the authorities that you’re actually safe for the public, and that’s very important.
Can you imagine using the Matternet in the United States?
Yes. There are some things that we can use the system for right now, disaster relief is one of those. Our bigger vision is doing micro-transportation; courier transportation. We believe we will be able to do it in the states. The legal framework for small UAV operation is not fully shaped yet, but it’s a fast-moving space, and our eye is on the ball to see when we will be able to do it. Maybe two years from now or five years from now.