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.
"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.”
Pelayo says he has already been contacted by many in the open source community who want to help with coding and development. Once that is done, it is over to local people to dictate how it is used.
“A village cooperative in Ghana, for example, could buy a base station,” says Pelayo. “The community would own that node, and figure out how best to use it.”
“That’s our passion,” Wongviriyawong affirms. “Let the local people figure out how best to use it, instead of us delivering a solution to them.”
Currently, the subtleties of the different approaches are difficult to tease apart. For example, Sparks says that Matternet's solution is "application agnostic" as well. "Both Matternet's design and business model are deeply bottom up," she says. "We allow any customer to determine what they would like to do with our technology."
Perhaps it won't be until both are able to demonstrate the technology, that the differences will be clear. And we may not have to wait long.
Both companies, aria and Matternet, are pushing forward quickly, trying to get field tests up and running in the coming months.
Matternet has negotiated a contract with their first client, a global consultancy with a large presence in Turkey. They are moving forward with designs for their prototype quadcopter, and plan to run a pilot project with a UAV expert in Brazil in the coming months.
For its part, aria says it is talking with partners in the Middle East. By mid-year, the company hopes to be on the ground in various locations, conducting analysis of local customer needs. The group is also evaluating whether it the idea could work with water-based autonomous vehicles as well.
“No one approach is the best, or the only one,” Arturo Pelayo says. “And I think different ideas will help jump-start and inspire the entire ecosystem.”
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This story was updated on 27 February to include details about aria.