Drones for good: Andreas Raptopoulos at TEDxHelvetia

Much has been said about the destructive capabilities of autonomous flying robots — also known as drones — and less about their potential for good.

TEDx speaker Andreas Raptopoulos wants to start that conversation, and at TEDxHelvetia he did, by introducing Matternet — a project designed to use small, flying autonomous robots to deliver medicine to places inaccessible by typical modes of transportation.

From his talk:

One billion people do not have access to all-season roads. One-seventh of the Earth’s population are disconnected from all socioeconomic activity for some part of the year. 

They cannot get medicine reliably. They cannot get goods. They cannot get their goods to market in order to find a sustainable path out of poverty.

Now mainstream thinking suggests that these nations should invest in building roads — following the lead of the developed world. It’s a pretty tall order. It’s estimated that in some countries, it may take them 50 years to catch up…

We saw that and we thought, ‘…There has to be another way.’ So we asked the question, ‘Can these countries leapfrog?’ After all, many of these nations have excellent telecommunications today, but they’ve never put copper lines in the ground. Could we do the same for transportation? We believe we can.

Imagine this scenario: You are in a maternity ward in Mali and you have a newborn in need of urgent medication. What do you do? Well…you place a request by mobile phone; somebody gets that request immediately: that part works. But the medicine may take days to arrive: that’s the part that’s broken.

We believe we can fix this. We believe we can deliver the medicine within hours — or even minutes — with an electric, autonomous, medical supply vehicle…

The beauty of this technology is its autonomy. There’s no pilot needed to fly this vehicle. They fly using GPS waypoints from one landing station to the next. Once they arrive at a landing station, they swap battery and load automatically. This is the heart of our system

It turns out that it’s amazingly cost-effective. In order to transport two kilograms over 10 kilometers, the cost is only 24 cents…

We believe that Matternet can do for the transportation of matter what the Internet did for the flow of information.

Says TED speaker Ray Kurzweil of the project — in conversation with Fast Company, "The developed world has a huge lead over the developing world in infrastructure but our strategy should be to leapfrog these already obsolete and crumbling systems with 21st century solutions. That’s what we did with phone systems as developing societies went right to wireless and will never put in a wired land line system. Bits are already being widely distributed to emerging economies. Matternet will do that for atoms."

Matternet photo via Electronic Products