While drones are typically—and quite reasonably—associated with the horrors of modern warfare, California-based startup Matternet, Inc. hopes that a network of peaceful unmanned aerial vehicles could provide vital assistance to communities in need. Their remotely operated electric quadcopters are intended to deliver supplies to people in areas lacking in basic infrastructure, such as remote towns and villages as well as to those in post-disaster zones.
The potentials for the battery-powered unmanned aerial vehicles are substantial; not only could Matternet’s drones bring basic supplies, medicine and emergency relief to those in need (much like a less-resource intensive air-drop), but they could also connect rural areas to urban—allowing poverty-stricken communities to connect with markets. At present the battery-powered vehicles do have their limitations—the company envisions “landing stations” where the drones could be charged every five kilometers or so. In off-grid areas one would have to assume that such landing stations might be powered by renewable sources. But this relatively small-scale infrastructure, free of dependence on costly gasoline, could still provide substantial savings.
The Huffington Post reports that a Matternet case study in Lesotho, in southern Africa, found that the country’s 140-kilometer capital Maseru could be connected by a series of drones for $900,000, while “the cost to build a 2 kilometer winding road is a million dollars,” according to the company’s co-founder Paola Santana. While clearly the unmanned aircraft cannot completely replace traditional infrastructure—communities need to be able to get to hospitals and the like—it’s certainly an interesting step.
So far Matternet has been trialing the aircraft in the Dominican Republic (Santana’s home) and in neighboring Haiti. In Haiti one of the test flights took place over a post-earthquake camp, where the drones delivered medicine as well as chocolates for the kids. The company has been unable to test the vehicles in the US due to FAA regulations, but does not rule out usage of the drones in the US too. As some have pointed out, perhaps it could provide an alternative to the beleaguered US Postal Service.