If you want to get a sense of one of man’s great overlooked engineering achievements look at the US Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook’s entry on roads around the world.
It contains some interesting statistics. For example, the US contains 6.5 million km (4 million miles) of roads – the most paved country in the world. At the other end of the scale is the tiny Pacific island of Tuvalu with just 8km (5 miles) – probably not the place to go for a driving holiday.
But it is not always big countries that have lots of roads and vice versa. Look at countries in Africa, for example. Algeria, Congo and Chad – some of the largest countries on the continent – still have relatively small numbers of arteries, meaning large parts remain inaccessible and cut off from the wider world.
In these places, delivering food, drugs or any necessity is a time-consuming, arduous process.
But a concept called “the Matternet” hopes to change that. The idea seems straightforward: build the “roads” of the future. But there’s a big difference. These roads will be in the sky.
The Matternet concept grew out of lengthy brainstorming sessions last summer at Singularity University, which is located at the NASA Research Park campus in Silicon Valley. The University was founded by Dr. Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize Foundation, and Dr. Ray Kurzweil, who is known for his work in artificial intelligence and transhumanism.
One of those involved in those sessions was Andreas Raptopoulos, an engineer with a life-long love of flying vehicles.
"In the course, they asked us to come up with solutions to some of the globe's grand challenges," says Raptopoulos. "And one of those was alleviating poverty."
The more the group thought about the problem of poverty, the more they felt it was, in large part, caused by the fact that millions of people are cut off, literally, from the global economy because of a lack of delivery infrastructure.
"The concept of using roads to move stuff around is a very, very old concept," Raptopoulos tells me. "The US has now more than miles of roads. But should Africa try to replicate that? It is expensive, and it destroys the environment."
Eventually, the group considered the merits of an unconventional delivery system. Why not, they thought, use a network of unmanned aerial drones to move physical objects the way the internet carries small packets of information through various routes, and then puts all those pieces together again at the end?
“That’s when the idea clicked for me,” says Mint Wongviriyawong, who was also a member of the group. “If you could use these UAVs to transport things from point-to-point, you could transport a lot of loads, autonomously, within a shorter time frame, and it could be done cheaply.”
The group’s hope was to one day allow developing countries to leapfrog expensive road networks in much that same way that mobile phones have allowed them to leapfrog copper wires and landlines.
They decided, in a sense, to hack the road transportation system, and they decided to do it by looking up. In particular, they focused on quadcopters, which are small, hovering aircraft with four rotors. They can take off and land vertically, are light, and run on batteries. And they can be programmed to do what you want them to. If you want to see what you can do with quadcopters, for relatively little money, check out the DIY Drones website.