If you’re interested in drone deliveries, it’s likely because you want your internet shopping dropped at your door within an hour of clicking “buy.” And while companies like Amazon are working to make that happen, complicated logistics and thorny regulations mean it’s likely to be years before you start hearing the whir of rotors on your front porch.
Yet drones are already proving their worth with more urgent, medical, missions. The latest of these comes from Silicon Valley startup Matternet, which has been testing an autonomous drone network over Switzerland, shuttling blood and other medical samples between hospitals and testing facilities.
“We have a vision of a distributed network, not hub and spoke, but true peer-to-peer,” says Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos. Instead of operating from large centralized drone airports, every hospital can install its own base to keep drones running, without onsite technicians to recharge or reload them. Right now, Raptopoulos says, hospitals move those supplies using third party couriers that tend to be expensive and unreliable, or even use taxis. This promises to be a far more direct mode of transport.
To make that possible, the California company developed a drone base station that automates ground operations, to make life as easy as possible for operators. Covering roughly about 6 square feet and about 4 feet high, it fits easily in a parking lot or rooftop. To send a package, you just pop whatever needs carrying into a bright red, shoebox sized container (the only splash of color in this otherwise white, ‘living in the future’ base station). Once you’ve scanned the box with the station’s built-in QR reader, an illuminated slot opens, sucks in the package, slots it into a Matternet M2 quadcopter, and sends it off into the sky.
For incoming traffic, the base station manages its own airspace with an “automated aerial deconfliction system,” and implements a holding pattern for incoming drones if more than one arrives at the same time. It also broadcasts its location to help drones land in just the right spot. When a drone touches down, the base locks it into place, swaps out its depleted batteries for a charged set, and loads it with its fresh cargo.
Once on the move, Matternet says the drones have enough built-in smarts to find a safe path. In good weather, they can travel about 12 miles, carrying about 4 pounds. In Switzerland, they’ll avoid other aircraft by flying in a fairly empty bit of airspace, at altitudes used only by emergency helicopters. And they’ll constantly broadcast their locations.
Matternet’s not the only company transporting medical payloads with drones. Another Silicon Valley startup, Zipline, delivers blood and vaccine supplies throughout Rwanda and Tanzania, African countries where lacking infrastructure makes flying much more efficient than driving. In the US, UPS has demonstrated drone deliveries from the top of a moving van. 7-Eleven and Flirtey (yet another drone-focused startup) teamed up to perform limited deliveries in Nevada.
What’s new here is that while all those operations took place over unpopulated areas, Matternet plans to fly above people-packed cities. To do that, it secured a special license from the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation. It partnered with the country’s postal service to trial the system in the city of Lugano in March. By the end of the year, it hopes to start a gradual rollout to other cities in the country. Then comes the rest of Europe, the US, and Japan.
Matternet sees this as a starting point. Medical deliveries are a commercially viable way to use drones, but as the expense falls, it hopes more people adopt its drones and bases. When that happens the definition of urgent might fall too, and your must-have purchase of tomorrow will arrive as quickly as medical samples today.