Matternet Wants to Deliver Meds with a Network of Quadrotors

Small, fast, and cheap flying robots could be the best way of getting medicine to people in hard to reach areas of developing countries

2 min read
Matternet Wants to Deliver Meds with a Network of Quadrotors

The go-to way of delivering medial supplies to rural areas of developing nations is to not deliver them at all, and force sick people to hike miles through mountains and jungles to get the drugs they need. That, or some dude delivers them on a motorbike. And if the weather's been bad and the roads are washed out, well, good luck.

Solution? Do it all by air. The only way to do that efficiently (or at all) is to scale it way, way down from planes and helicopters to small UAVs. This is the concept behind Matternet, which seems to be both a technology and a company who wants to revolutionize the way medicine is delivered to the billion (with a "b") or so people who live completely cut off from road networks for at least some of the year. Matternet will be a network of autonomous quadrotor UAVs that use GPS and a beacon system to rapidly deliver small packages (containing drugs or medical testing supplies) to people who can't otherwise get them. Their first commercial platform (look for it in three to six months) will be able to fly 10 km while carrying a 2kg load, and it should be durable enough to make thousands of trips in variable weather. All this for only a few hundred dollars a unit. If it works out, Matternet could mean a drastic quality of life improvement for a lot (a lot) of people.

Matternet will develop in three distinct phases: phase one involves using a single UAV for point-to-point cargo transport. For example, a clinic uses a UAV to deliver drugs to an otherwise inaccessible nearby village in 30 minutes or less (or they're free). Phase two will add remote, autonomous recharging stations to allow UAVs to juice up in between deliveries, enabling them to roam farther afield and make multiple deliveries without having to return to base. Connect the dots between base stations and you have a delivery network. In phase three, all of these discrete networks grow large enough that they overlap, and it becomes possible to use a continuous chain of autonomously cooperating UAVs to transport things across entire continents very quickly and for cheap. Eventually, the idea is that Matternet turns into a sort of Internet for stuff, where you can make a request and get a physical object delivered to you. Matternet. Get it?

The obvious question now is, why stop with essential goods like medicines? Forget about the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, FedEx, and all of those short-lived microdelivery services. Autonomous UAVs are faster, cheaper, more efficient, more environmentally friendly, easier to scale, and don't arrogantly double-park all over the place. They could be the urban delivery system of the future, at least until we all get flying cars, at which point all those little flying robots and their packages will likely end up splattered across our windshields. Yay progress!

[ Matternet ] via [ CNET ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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