09:25
TEDGlobal 2013

Andreas Raptopoulos: No roads? There’s a drone for that

Filmed:

A billion people in the world lack access to all-season roads. Could the structure of the internet provide a model for how to reach them? Andreas Raptopoulos of Matternet thinks so. He introduces a new type of transportation system that uses electric autonomous flying machines to deliver medicine, food, goods and supplies wherever they are needed.

- Airborne logistics activist
Andreas Raptopoulos and his colleagues are building the flying internet of things, using drones to carry essential goods to otherwise inaccessible areas. Full bio

One billion people in the world today
00:13
do not have access to all-season roads.
00:15
One billion people.
00:17
One seventh of the Earth's population
00:19
are totally cut off for some part of the year.
00:21
We cannot get medicine to them reliably,
00:25
they cannot get critical supplies,
00:27
and they cannot get their goods to market
00:29
in order to create a sustainable income.
00:31
In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance,
00:35
85 percent of roads are unusable in the wet season.
00:37
Investments are being made,
00:41
but at the current level,
00:43
it's estimated it's going to take them
00:45
50 years to catch up.
00:46
In the U.S. alone, there's more than four million
00:49
miles of roads, very expensive to build,
00:52
very expensive to maintain infrastructure,
00:55
with a huge ecological footprint,
00:58
and yet, very often, congested.
01:00
So we saw this and we thought,
01:04
can there be a better way?
01:06
Can we create a system using today's
most advanced technologies
01:08
that can allow this part of the world to leapfrog
01:11
in the same way they've done with mobile telephones
01:14
in the last 10 years?
01:17
Many of those nations have excellent telecommunications today
01:19
without ever putting copper lines in the ground.
01:22
Could we do the same for transportation?
01:25
Imagine this scenario.
01:28
Imagine you are in a maternity ward in Mali,
01:30
and have a newborn in need of urgent medication.
01:33
What would you do today?
01:37
Well, you would place a request via mobile phone,
01:39
and someone would get the request immediately.
01:41
That's the part that works.
01:44
The medication may take days to arrive, though,
01:46
because of bad roads.
01:48
That's the part that's broken.
01:50
We believe we can deliver it within hours
01:52
with an electric autonomous flying vehicle
01:54
such as this.
01:57
This can transport a small payload
today, about two kilograms,
01:58
over a short distance, about 10 kilometers,
02:01
but it's part of a wider network that may cover
02:04
the entire country, maybe even the entire continent.
02:06
It's an ultra-flexible, automated logistics network.
02:10
It's a network for a transportation of matter.
02:15
We call it Matternet.
02:17
We use three key technologies.
02:19
The first is electric autonomous flying vehicles.
02:21
The second is automated ground stations
02:23
that the vehicles fly in and out of
02:26
to swap batteries and fly farther,
02:28
or pick up or deliver loads.
02:30
And the third is the operating system
02:32
that manages the whole network.
02:34
Let's look at each one of those
technologies in a bit more detail.
02:37
First of all, the UAVs.
02:40
Eventually, we're going to be
using all sorts of vehicles
02:42
for different payload capacities and different ranges.
02:44
Today, we're using small quads.
02:47
These are able to transport two kilograms
02:49
over 10 kilometers in just about 15 minutes.
02:51
Compare this with trying to trespass a bad road
02:54
in the developing world,
02:57
or even being stuck in traffic
02:58
in a developed world country.
03:00
These fly autonomously.
03:02
This is the key to the technology.
03:04
So they use GPS and other sensors on board
03:06
to navigate between ground stations.
03:08
Every vehicle is equipped with an automatic
03:12
payload and battery exchange mechanism,
03:14
so these vehicles navigate to those ground stations,
03:17
they dock, swap a battery automatically,
03:20
and go out again.
03:22
The ground stations are located on safe locations
03:23
on the ground.
03:26
They secure the most vulnerable part of the mission,
03:28
which is the landing.
03:30
They are at known locations on the ground,
03:31
so the paths between them are also known,
03:34
which is very important from a reliability perspective
03:36
from the whole network.
03:38
Apart from fulfilling the energy
requirements of the vehicles,
03:40
eventually they're going to be becoming
03:43
commercial hubs where people can take out loads
03:45
or put loads into the network.
03:48
The last component is the operating system
03:51
that manages the whole network.
03:53
It monitors weather data from all the ground stations
03:55
and optimizes the routes of
the vehicles through the system
03:58
to avoid adverse weather conditions,
04:01
avoid other risk factors,
04:04
and optimize the use of the resources
04:06
throughout the network.
04:07
I want to show you what one of those flights
04:09
looks like.
04:11
Here we are flying in Haiti last summer,
04:13
where we've done our first field trials.
04:17
We're modeling here a medical delivery
04:19
in a camp we set up after the 2010 earthquake.
04:21
People there love this.
04:26
And I want to show you
04:28
what one of those vehicles looks like up close.
04:31
So this is a $3,000 vehicle.
04:36
Costs are coming down very rapidly.
04:38
We use this in all sorts of weather conditions,
04:42
very hot and very cold climates,
04:45
very strong winds. They're very sturdy vehicles.
04:46
Imagine if your life depended on this package,
04:53
somewhere in Africa
04:57
or in New York City, after Sandy.
04:58
The next big question is, what's the cost?
05:02
Well, it turns out that the cost to transport
05:06
two kilograms over 10 kilometers with this vehicle
05:09
is just 24 cents.
05:13
(Applause)
05:17
And it's counterintuitive, but the cost of energy
05:22
expended for the flight is only two cents
05:25
of a dollar today,
05:27
and we're just at the beginning of this.
05:28
When we saw this, we felt that this is something
05:30
that can have significant impact in the world.
05:33
So we said, okay, how much does it cost
05:36
to set up a network somewhere in the world?
05:38
And we looked at setting up a network in Lesotho
05:40
for transportation of HIV/AIDS samples.
05:42
The problem there is how do you take them
05:45
from clinics where they're being collected
05:48
to hospitals where they're being analyzed?
05:50
And we said, what if we wanted to cover an area
05:53
spanning around 140 square kilometers?
05:55
That's roughly one and a half times
the size of Manhattan.
05:58
Well it turns out that the cost to do that there
06:01
would be less than a million dollars.
06:03
Compare this to normal infrastructure investments.
06:06
We think this can be -- this is the power
06:10
of a new paradigm.
06:13
So here we are: a new idea
06:15
about a network for transportation
06:18
that is based on the ideas of the Internet.
06:20
It's decentralized, it's peer-to-peer,
06:22
it's bidirectional, highly adaptable,
06:25
with very low infrastructure investment,
06:27
very low ecological footprint.
06:30
If it is a new paradigm, though,
06:34
there must be other uses for it.
06:36
It can be used perhaps in other places in the world.
06:38
So let's look at the other end of the spectrum:
06:41
our cities and megacities.
06:45
Half of the Earth's population lives in cities today.
06:47
Half a billion of us live in megacities.
06:50
We are living through an amazing urbanization trend.
06:52
China alone is adding a megacity
06:55
the size of New York City every two years.
06:57
These are places that do have road infrastructure,
07:00
but it's very inefficient.
07:03
Congestion is a huge problem.
07:05
So we think it makes sense in those places
07:07
to set up a network of transportation
07:09
that is a new layer that sits between the road
07:11
and the Internet,
07:14
initially for lightweight, urgent stuff,
07:15
and over time, we would hope to develop this
07:18
into a new mode of transportation
07:20
that is truly a modern solution to a very old problem.
07:22
It's ultimately scalable
07:25
with a very small ecological footprint,
07:27
operating in the background 24/7,
07:30
just like the Internet.
07:33
So when we started this
07:35
a couple of years ago now,
07:37
we've had a lot of people come up to us who said,
07:40
"This is a very interesting but crazy idea,
07:43
and certainly not something that you should
07:46
engage with anytime soon."
07:48
And of course, we're talking about drones, right,
07:50
a technology that's not only unpopular in the West
07:52
but one that has become a very, very unpleasant
07:56
fact of life for many living in poor countries,
07:58
especially those engaged in conflict.
08:01
So why are we doing this?
08:04
Well, we chose to do this one
08:08
not because it's easy,
08:11
but because it can have amazing impact.
08:13
Imagine one billion people being connected
08:16
to physical goods in the same way
08:18
that mobile telecommunications connected them
08:21
to information.
08:24
Imagine if the next big network we built in the world
08:26
was a network for the transportation of matter.
08:30
In the developing world, we would hope
08:33
to reach millions of people with better vaccines,
08:36
reach them with better medication.
08:39
It would give us an unfair advantage against battling
08:40
HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other epidemics.
08:42
Over time, we would hope it would become
08:46
a new platform for economic transactions,
08:48
lifting millions of people out of poverty.
08:50
In the developed world and the emerging world,
08:53
we would hope it would become a new mode
08:55
of transportation that could help make our cities
08:56
more livable.
09:00
So for those that still believe
that this is science fiction,
09:02
I firmly say to you that it is not.
09:05
We do need to engage, though,
09:08
in social fiction to make it happen.
09:10
Thank you.
09:13
(Applause)
09:15

▲Back to top

About the Speaker:

Andreas Raptopoulos - Airborne logistics activist
Andreas Raptopoulos and his colleagues are building the flying internet of things, using drones to carry essential goods to otherwise inaccessible areas.

Why you should listen

It's a modern-day truism that, in regions where the phone company never bothered to lay network cable, locals quickly adopted mobile phones -- and then innovated mobile services that go far beyond what so-called developed countries have. Could the same pattern hold true with roads?

Andreas Raptopoulos is hoping to find out with Matternet, a project that uses swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver urgent items -- think emergency and medical supplies -- to places where there are no driveable roads. Imagine a sort of flying bucket brigade or relay race, where autonomous quadricopters pass packages around a flexible network that behaves something like the internet -- but for real goods.

Raptopoulos is a designer, inventor and entrepreneur. Prior to Matternet, he founded FutureAcoustic, a music platform that adjusts to the listener's environment. 

More profile about the speaker
Andreas Raptopoulos | Speaker | TED.com