Re-imagining logistics with aerial drone delivery

By | 3 minute read | January 30, 2018

Imagine if customers could receive small packaged goods in less than an hour, instead of a day or a week. The time and cost savings could change how goods are purchased and consumed, with far-reaching consequences across the supply chain and to people’s lives.

That is the promise of today’s emerging autonomous transportation systems that use drones and drone systems to deliver lightweight goods on demand over the air in cities or megacity environments. Drones also bring the possibility of reaching remote, underserved populations, such as in rural Africa.

If this sounds futuristic, consider that my company, Matternet, has been certified to use our drone technology to transport blood samples, medicine, surgical instruments and other goods on demand between hospitals and labs in Switzerland. It’s like having a pneumatic tube that covers much longer distances without any infrastructure.

Improving patient care with drone technology

The 10 to 15 minutes a typical hospital delivery takes, compared to much slower ground delivery, creates real opportunities to improve patient care and hospital operations. Not only will this reduce costs, but it gives hospital administrators the chance to rethink operational processes, such as how they run their labs and where they store their supplies. The time saved in critical cases has the potential to save lives.

Applying on-demand delivery to e-commerce could help people move away from buying in advance and storing goods, into an economy where we transact goods in real time with low latency and friction. That could mean less road congestion, improved air quality, and shipping costs so low they don’t even register as an expense. In our view, the bottom-line benefit will be to make our cities far more livable.

Three elements for on-demand transportation

More work is needed to make this vision a reality. For successful on-demand delivery at scale, we need to perfect a logistics ecosystem of three technology elements: drones, ground systems and a cloud-based network.

Today’s drones can autonomously transport goods up to 2 kilograms in weight over a distance of 20 kilometers. Critical mass requires a scale of hundreds of drones operating over a city like Zurich or San Francisco. Strategically located ground stations can help to automate package sending, payload pickup and battery exchange. The final element is a cloud-based network platform for collecting and analyzing the data needed for safe and secure delivery

What kind of data goes into the system? To ensure safety, we can avoid collisions by detecting and monitoring other aircraft in our flight paths. Monitoring population density can help us to map out routes that bypass heavily populated areas. The weather affects our deliveries, so we monitor wind and precipitation patterns from multiple sources. For e-commerce we monitor consumption patterns to locate drone fleets and ground stations where demand will be strong.

Combining input from thousands and perhaps millions of sensors creates a voluminous data set that must be analyzed in real time. We believe the answer is analytical technology as found in the IBM Watson Internet of Things (IoT) Platform. The cloud-based IoT platform can help consolidate data, learn patterns and predict the best route for each drone to follow. This will let us run our systems at scale.

If we succeed, we expect to expand the Zurich delivery service to other hospitals in Switzerland, and then to e-commerce solutions in Europe, the US and Japan. Achieving this level of scale should reduce the cost dramatically, making our technology viable in parts of the world where the infrastructure is broken. Just as cell phone networks have leapfrogged the wired Internet in some places, on-demand delivery could leapfrog the limitations of ground-based infrastructure.

No one knows how this will play out exactly. It is really exciting to apply our technology to create the kind of future we want to live in.

Watch the following video of Matternet Founder and CEO Andreas Raptopoulos discussing on-demand drone delivery services:

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