I recently wrote a piece here on CleanTechnica as a reaction to Donald Trump’s outrageous slur of more than a quarter of the world’s countries. My goal was to highlight some of the vast resources of the African continent to prove the man wrong. Needless to say this spurred colorful comments — most of them positive.
A few discussions were about infrastructure. There were interesting arguments on how the massive electrical grids we are accustomed to in our part of the world will never be built at scale in Africa due to the advent of relatively cheap decentralized solar photovoltaic electricity production and battery storage, rendering massive infrastructure investments unnecessary. Same for telecommunications. But the real game changer may in fact be delivery of goods by drones.
Drones rely on energy and communication
To have a drone infrastructure work in real life, electricity supply must be stable, and wireless communication must be very reliable. But that is becoming the norm many places on Earth earlier classified as off-grid.
A few years ago I read about The Flying Donkey Challenge, where companies would compete in flying a payload of 20 kg around Mount Kenya to test drone hardware and possibilities in this sort of logistics. It was supposed to begin in November 2014, but unfortunately the terrorist attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi the year before prevented the project from moving forward due to security concerns.
At the time, I also saw Andreas Raptopoulos TED talk about Matternet — a collective term for a concept as well as his company — and I was kind of blown away by the idea and the numbers. He proclaimed a 24 cent cost for 2 kg payload over 10 km. It seemed to good to be true, but there is a logic behind it you can’t deny.
Refuel — Reload — Navigate
Besides the obvious physical properties, the difference between matternet and internet comes down to energy and capacity. The internet sends data packets as electrical signals on wires or radio signals wirelessly. Energy is transmitted and received at nodes and the packets themselves are easily sliced and copied and reassembled due to their digital nature. The matternet can’t copy and slice the packets due to their physical nature, and to move them around, the thing carrying the packet must carry its own energy. But the real eye opener here is that these are the only differences. The principles of sender, receiver, and transport is very much like the internet.
You may have heard that the internet is based on rules governed by the TCP/IP protocols. Think a minute about what those letters mean: Transmission Control Protocol (how to send) / Internet Protocol (where to send). Whenever a data packet reaches a node in the network, negotiations commence on which node to go to next, hence there is a myriad of possible routes from point A to B that neither sender or receiver is aware of — or indeed should care about. It just works, because every data packet or part thereof is accompanied by an IP address.
Now, imagine those nodes being landing platforms for drones, where batteries can be charged or replaced, and packets can be transferred to a fresh drone — like the good old Pony Express, only fully automatic.
Wait, what about our existing postal services? That’s a system based on nodes, so what’s new? The key difference is that traditional public postal systems are based on schedules, like in the early infancy of computers where you had to book a time slot to use a computer. The new automated systems can be on-demand based. Like the internet. Very efficient and potentially very cheap.
Developing world reality
In 2016, the drone service Zipline was launched in Rwanda and was soon making 60 medical deliveries every day. This year the company will launch in Tanzania with potentially 2,000 deliveries every day, making it the world’s largest fully operational commercial delivery service of its kind using drones.
Zipline uses winged unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and drops packets by parachute to optimize speed, range, energy consumption, and safety. This service is the perfect example of where this technology is headed. It is technically relatively simple and super cheap to operate.
The advantages of drones with wings is that they are less prone to fail in bad weather and can travel further, and faster, which is perfect for the vast sparsely populated areas of Africa.
Tanzania’s Medical Stores Department expects that all 5,640 public health facilities in the country will have all the essential medical supplies delivered by the service, however remote their locations.
It is quite astonishing to realize that this is actually working, right now. Keller Rinaudo, CEO and co-founder of Zipline, puts it this way: “They’re not trying to catch up to US infrastructure. They’re just leapfrogging roads and trucks and motorcycles and going to a new type of infrastructure.”
Developed World High-Tech
At the International Auto show in Frankfurt last year, I saw Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz autonomous Vision Van concept with integrated delivery drones. The drone part of this concept is actually being tested in a pilot project in Zurich, Switzerland, by teaming up with Matternet and retailer Siroop, albeit with more common Vito vans driven by humans for now. The goal of this project is to figure out how drones and vans can cooperate to optimize delivery routes.
In terms of precision, drones are getting very competent indeed. Besides cameras, global positioning systems, ultrasound proximity sensors, and high resolution maps, even LIDAR is getting small enough to be carried by drones. This makes drones able to navigate fast and incredibly tight in any given environment.
On top of this, we have the concept of swarm intelligence that enables drones to anticipate optimal routes and potential obstacles because every single drone is an eye in the sky connected to the same brain. An example of this concept called Swarm of Drones (SoD) is described by a group of researchers from British and French universities which shows the tremendous potential of this technology.
Legislation slows down progress
I wonder how this will all pan out. We have heard about Amazon Prime Air drone delivery service and pizza delivery robots from Domino using Starship Delivery Vehicles. But when will these systems be implemented at scale? Legislation seems to be the constraint here slowing things down, but I am confident that we are at the brink of the next big thing in interconnecting the world physically. Some skeptics think it will make life easier for drug dealers and gun smugglers. It will — but so did the internet. Also, criminals drive cars on roads, but we still build roads, we just put police cars on them too.
We have ships, trains, planes, trucks, and vans. Now, another last-mile-problem is being solved with drones and small land based robots, in cooperation with existing technology. Why not have drones hitchhike on ordinary passenger cars on the highway to shift packets from one warehouse to the other? Amazon was actually granted a patent last year to charge EVs with drones. Think of it as payment for the ride!
Just like the public internet has evolved since the 1990s based on Arpanet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network developed in the 1960s proving the concept of data packet switching actually worked), the matternet will now evolve based on the mature internet.
It is all about standards
If you are familiar with the Open Systems Interconnection model (OSI model) defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) — that pretty much every hardware and software manufacturer complies to — you will know that it has a definition of the physical hardware layer (e.g. network cards) onto which software protocols are defined, ending up with the application layer (which is what the user interface is reliant upon). The matternet is just like the software you use everyday, only it has a physical user interface. Instead of clicking a button to send an email, you physically place stuff in a slot and someone else takes that stuff out of another slot anywhere else on the planet — like teleportation, only slower. This is convincingly visualized in The Matternet Station — a fully automated delivery system concept. Below is my own over-simplified visualization of the data vs stuff interplay. The existing internet transmit-node-receive scheme is what drones will rely on as well as operate like:
When I worked my way through the 7 layers of the OSI model back in school, I thought it was too much theory and too little reality, but I must admit that I see it everywhere. When I look at cables, switches, wifi-routers, computers, phones, and even cars now a days, I see layers of the OSI model all over the place.
The before mentioned Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is in the transport layer (layer 4), and below that we have the Internet Protocol (IP) in the network layer (layer 3), that is again reliant on things like Point to Point Protocols in the data link layer (layer 2), and at the bottom we have the physical layer (layer 1) where we find things like WiFi, USB, Ethernet, and Bluetooth, which is actual microchips handling data packets (and slices thereof) and transmitting them by cables and antennas. Layers 1 and 2 are often combined in the same hardware components.
Just wait for it
See, it’s all connected, and it all just works. You use all these layers all the time without realizing the incredible amounts of paperwork and decades of consensus these standards are based upon.
You could view what’s happening in Rwanda and Tanzania as the lab-work that goes before international standards are implemented for the matternet. It’s a proof of concept, from which the developing world is benefiting hugely because of less bureaucracy.
Eventually the matternet will simply work for all of us, just like the internet — for good and for bad. But when? Your guess is as good as mine.
And I haven’t even mentioned electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft for personal mobility… Oops, I just did.