"Our intent is to use them for delivery," says Caitlin Sparks, who also worked on the Matternet project last summer. "What's really interesting is how they can be networked and routed. If you put a whole fleet of them together, it becomes a really interesting prospect."
You can imagine a very "Jetsons-esque" kind of future, right? With hundreds, maybe thousands of copters flying back and forth between, say, a farm in Africa and a market in a larger town. The copters would carry perhaps one or two pieces of fruit or vegetables at a time, for hours on end. It sounds inefficient compared to one big truck delivery, but Raptopoulos maintains that because the vehicles would be networked, and would function autonomously. "You can move a lot of stuff around eventually."
And, he says, it scales. "You would start small, with point-to-point connections," Raptopoulos says. "But as the system grows, it's like nodes in a computer network. Eventually, all the small nodes could be connected into a larger scale network of UAVs, and then some day a whole logistics system."
It sounds great, but the obvious question remains: how do you even begin to build out such a system? And it is in answering that question that the original Matternet brainstorming group seems to have split along philosophical and practical lines.
Raptopoulos and Sparks have now founded a company called Matternet, after the name of the original concept. They are working on creating a fleet of vehicles that can carry various weights. For now, the focus is on quadcopters because they are the cheapest and easiest to modify. But, the size of the quadcopters limits the amount that can be carried to a couple of kilograms.
"We'll start by emphasising high value payloads over volume or weight," says Raptopoulos. In the developing world, that would mean using the Matternet to help NGOs delivered much needed medicines, vaccines or food supplies to remote locations. In the developed world, it could mean using quadcopters in highly populated areas to carry precision electronic equipment, textiles, or pharmaceuticals.
"Eventually," says Sparks, "we would have a specialized fleet of different UAVs, of various sizes and different carrying capacities, that are suited to different tasks." They are thinking of various sizes and configurations of aircraft that could carry between five and 100kg.
They are also working on how to build a network of ground stations where these vehicles can pick up and deliver goods, receive their instructions, and swap batteries when needed. They are also writing their own operating system to control the machines. They envision it as a cloud-based operating system that would run the whole network, and would be responsible for routing goods in the most efficient ways possible.
But others in the original group have a different vision.
“If the idea of the Matternet is the same as the internet, we want everyone to be able to use it and see it,” says Arturo Pelayo. “We don’t think it belongs to any one company.”
Pelayo was a member of the original brainstorming team behind the Matternet at Singularity University. He and three others, including Mint Wongviriyawong, have formed a competing company called aria, short for “autonomous roadless intelligent array.”
Aria is focused on creating the base stations for the network. Make a great platform for the network, the thinking goes, and let others create the open source applications and vehicles which they need and want.
“We see ourselves as the logistics part of it,” says Wongviriyawong. “We’re not focused on making things ourselves, but pulling it all together.”