There are one billion people in the world without access to reliable roads, according to the World Bank. Of course, living without roads means living without a lot of other things, too, like access to medication, to professional medical care, to commerce, to name a few.
Matternet, a two-year-old start-up based in Palo Alto, wants to use drones to connect people living in even the most remote locations. "Public perception says that 'drone' is a bad word, because of how it's used in the military," says Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos. "We want to rewrite the rules about how this technology can be used to bring good to the world."
Raptopoulus and his fellow co-founders, Paolo Santana, Dimitar Pachov, and Darlene Damm, met at Singularity University, a program that incubates business ideas with the potential to positively affect the lives of one billion people within 10 years. It was there, in the summer of 2011, that they conceived of and designed the Matternet drone. During a trip, the drones, which are capable of covering six miles in 15 minutes carrying a four pound load, would stop at a network of ground-based recharging stations manned by human operators, where they would drop of a rechargeable battery, pick up a new one, and set off for the next destination. Though six miles might not sound like much, it's enough Raptopoulos says, to transport HIV tests, vaccines, and other crucial medical supplies from hospitals to rural clinics. "If you're trying to control an HIV epidemic, it's a no brainer the best way to do it is with efficient transportation," says Raptopoulos.
Matternet plans to market its drones to governments and non-profit organizations until the start-up can drive costs down enough to market the drones to consumers. The drones are not only an answer for the developing world, Raptopoulos says. They could also be used in the developed, or rather, overdeveloped world, where too much infrastructure coupled with too many people cause crippling congestion.
Appealing as this future is, Matternet, which now has seven employees, has a long list of challenges to overcome before Raptopoulos's dream becomes a reality. For starters, there are regulatory hurdles. In many countries in the world, the use of autonomous flying vehicles is illegal, so Raptopoulos may have to wait until the largely negative public perception of drones begins to change. Then there's the cost. One drone costs about $2,000 to $3,000. Matternet recently estimated the costs of building a full system of drones and recharging stations for a single district in Lesotho, a tiny country in the middle of South Africa, and found that it would cost roughly $900,000. Though Raptopoulos says that's cheaper than building a road, it's still a hefty price for poverty-stricken countries or the cash-strapped non-profits that serve them to pay.
Cost, however, is an inevitable barrier for any innovative technology, says Raptopoulos. "When cell phones started, they were expensive and unreliable, and only the rich guys could afford them," he says. "Over time they became cheaper, and now they're huge in places like Kenya. While I don't think it's reasonable to expect villages in Kenya to be buying Matternet in two years, if you think eight to ten years out, it will be in the realm of what's possible." So far, Matternet has run test pilots in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and Raptopoulos says the company has several other projects slated for later this year. "The objective of the work we're doing is to start with small applications in whichever markets we can access and, over time, build a system that's more cost effective and more reliable," Raptopoulos says. "In 10 years or so, we'd like to see this used in most places around the world."