Idea for supply chains of flying drones takes off

Field tests of the flying drones took place in the Dominican Republic and Haiti Copyright: Matternet

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[SAO PAULO] A fleet of small flying drones could speed up the delivery of medicines and other supplies to remote areas, and even provide a cheaper alternative to a road network, according to Matternet, a start-up company in the United States.

Just as the Internet has revolutionised the transport of online data, the company says a network of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — the 'matternet' — could do the same for supplies.


  • Unmanned aerial vehicles could be deployed in a low-cost delivery network
  • Tests have taken place in the Dominican Republic and Haiti
  • Developing ground infrastructure and securing airspace are challenges

The company envisages a network of base stations, ten kilometres apart, with flying drones carrying packages of up to two kilograms between bases. A drone would take just 15 minutes for each trip without needing to recharge or replace its batteries.

The projected cost for setting up a case study in Lesotho with 50 base stations and 150 drones is US$900,000. After that, each trip by a drone would cost just 24 US cents. This compares with about US$1 million for building a two-kilometre, one-lane road, according to the company.

Andreas Raptopoulos, one of Matternet's founders, says there are three key technologies — electric flying vehicles, landing stations and routing software — that make such a network technically feasible.

The company has already tested prototypes in Haiti and the Dominican Republic in August and September last year.

"We went out with three vehicles, testing [remotely] piloted and autonomous missions in urban and rural locations in both countries," Raptopoulos tells SciDev.Net. The trials included discussions with local aviation authorities and government officials, he adds.

"The trials were successful. We logged several missions and found strong applications for the technology." The potential applications are courier transport in the Dominican Republic and delivery of diagnostic samples in Haiti.But Raptopoulos says there is much more development needed.

"We have to improve [the system's] autonomous navigation, battery exchange and ensure it is safe. It will take us 12 to 18 months to address these adequately before we can consider commercial or humanitarian deployments," he says.

Another company working on UAVs, and taking an open source approach, is Aria Logistics (Autonomous Roadless Intelligent Array).

"We are continuing the development of a fully autonomous system that does not involve human operators at all," Arturo Pelayo, Aria's co-founder, tells SciDev.Net. Pelayo was part of the same artificial intelligence project at Singularity University in Silicon Valley, United Sates, out of which Matternet emerged.

"We are already securing air space in many countries to enable developers to test autonomous open-source systems of their own," he adds.

But the projects do depend on infrastructure — a network of bases for the UAVs to land and relay packages — which will need funds to set up.

Eduardo Cabral, at the unmanned vehicle laboratory, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, says the idea is good, but one challenge is ensuring safety where drones share airspace with other aircraft.

He adds that the costs of further research and development to ensure safety and autonomy may be higher than anticipated by Matternet.

See below for a presentation by Andreas Raptopoulos:


See below for a Matternet video: