Two start-ups want to replace road transport with internet-style technology and swarms of tiny autonomous helicopters.
The Matternet concept grew out of lengthy brainstorming sessions last summer at Singularity University, which is located at the NASA Research Park campus in Silicon Valley. The University was founded by Dr. Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize Foundation, and Dr. Ray Kurzweil, who is known for his work in artificial intelligence and transhumanism.
One of those involved in those sessions was Andreas Raptopoulos, an engineer with a life-long love of flying vehicles.
"In the course, they asked us to come up with solutions to some of the globe's grand challenges," says Raptopoulos. "And one of those was alleviating poverty."
The more the group thought about the problem of poverty, the more they felt it was, in large part, caused by the fact that millions of people are cut off, literally, from the global economy because of a lack of delivery infrastructure.
"The concept of using roads to move stuff around is a very, very old concept," Raptopoulos tells me. "The US has now more than miles of roads. But should Africa try to replicate that? It is expensive, and it destroys the environment."
Eventually, the group considered the merits of an unconventional delivery system. Why not, they thought, use a network of unmanned aerial drones to move physical objects the way the internet carries small packets of information through various routes, and then puts all those pieces together again at the end?
“That’s when the idea clicked for me,” says Mint Wongviriyawong, who was also a member of the group. “If you could use these UAVs to transport things from point-to-point, you could transport a lot of loads, autonomously, within a shorter time frame, and it could be done cheaply.”