Do-Gooder Drones to the Rescue

When Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO of Matternet, asked a TED audience last year to “imagine if the next big network we built in the world was a network for the transportation of matter,” he wasn’t talking about delivering pizzas and your Amazon orders. Raptopoulos is among the growing ranks of social entrepreneurs who want to put advanced technologies to use for causes more noble than enabling more consumption. His Palo Alto startup seeks to employ drones to deliver humanitarian aid to the billion people in the world’s most remote areas.

matternet_city_day (1)When Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO of Matternet, asked a TED audience last year to “imagine if the next big network we built in the world was a network for the transportation of matter,” he wasn’t talking about delivering pizzas and your Amazon orders.

Raptopoulos is among the growing ranks of social entrepreneurs who want to put advanced technologies to use for causes nobler than enabling more consumption. His Palo Alto startup seeks to employ drones to deliver humanitarian aid to the billion people in the world’s most remote areas.

The Guardian reports this week that the Greek aero engineer and designer started thinking a couple years ago “that a network of unmanned aerial vehicles could deliver medical supplies across parts of the developing world inaccessible by road.”

Singularity University gave him a spot in its incubator, Raptopoulos reeled in funding from six investors including Andreessen Horowitz, and Matternet tested the concept in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. A pilot project to deliver HIV/AIDS tests in Lesotho is next.

In the same way mobile phones have let disadvantaged nations overcome poor telecoms infrastructure to connect and engage in e-commerce, drones could bypass the need for roads and reliable ground transportation, Raptopoulos predicts. In his 2013 TEDGlobal talk, he explained that 85 percent of roads in sub-Saharan Africa are unusable in rainy seasons, preventing delivery of any supplies or medications, let alone commercial goods.

AT TED, he demonstrated how an eight-propeller, $3,000 drone could deliver a 2kg packet of medical supplies. To transport the package 10 kilometers, he said, would cost 24 cents. The cost to set up a network of ground stations where drones could land to deliver and pick up AIDS tests and return them to a clinic over an area the size of Manhattan would be less than $1 million, he said.

Matternet will look for aid agencies to put up $150,000 to establish networks of five ground stations and 10 UAVs, the Guardian reported.

As for recent rumblings about the fast food industry employing drones to make home deliveries, Raptopoulos told the Guardian he thinks it’s “…total nonsense. Why the hell would you do that?”

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