Live from TEDGlobal 2013

Speedy delivery: Andreas Raptopoulos at TEDGlobal 2013

Posted by: Karen Eng
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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

If you’re here from MetaFilter, hi! We’re planning to post this talk in November. –eds

Andreas Raptopoulos wants to serve the 1 billion people on Earth with no access to all-season roads — the one-seventh of the world’s population that is too often cut off from critical medicines, supplies and goods. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 85% of roads are unusable in rainy season. Infrastructure is being built, but at this rate, says Raptopoulos, it will take half a century to catch up. And what would they catch up to? A model of transport infrastructure that takes a vast amount of energy to build and maintain, and is typically congested with traffic, wasting fuel and contributing to pollution. He makes a bold analogy: In the past two decades, regions in the developing world have used mobile networks to create communications systems without having to lay copper wire — could we do the same with transport?

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

His solution: Matternet, a flying, unmanned, self-regulating delivery system that runs 24/7 like the internet — only in the world of matter. Raptopoulos’s network of autonomous quadcopter drones could become the world’s next layer of infrastructure, helping us deliver goods and healthcare to inaccessible regions.

Matternet’s system is made up of three components: electric flying vehicles, landing stations, and routing software, an operating system that runs the whole network. Carrying a 2 kilogram payload, Matternet’s current-model UAVs can cover a 10-kilometer distance in 15 minutes. The drones fly at an altitude of 400 feet, safely out of the way of other aircraft, along preprogrammed, known routes to known landing stations, where they can automatically swap batteries, drop off or pick up a payload, and take off again. Automated route planning help drones navigate such obstacles as network load and bad weather.

But would it work? It already has: the first field test of Matternet drones was conducted in Haiti last year, delivering medication in the Petionville camp set up after the 2010 earthquake in Port-Au-Prince. (Find out more.) The company also hopes to raise funds for a case study to establish a network in Lesotho to deliver HIV/AIDs lab tests to hospitals. And the system is highly cost-effective. A 10 kilometer journey costs 24 cents, of which energy costs 2 cents. In Lesotho, creating a drone network serving 47 clinics and six labs covering an area of 138 square kilometers would cost less than $1 million.

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

As he speaks, there’s a buzzing sound from backstage, and a quadricopter flies out, resembling the top of a Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet with wings. When it lands, Raptopoulos bends down to retrieve a small emergency package, the size of a brick, attached to the bottom. “Imagine if your life depended on this package, somewhere in Africa, or in New York after Sandy.”

And that’s another point: Matternet could also work in the world’s congested cities, says Raptopoulos, acting as a layer of transport sitting between the infrastructure of roads and internet and making life in cities far more livable.

“Imagine if the next big network we build in the world is for the transportation of matter,” concludes Raptopoulos. It seems like a wild idea. After all, drones are not only an unpopular idea in the West, but an unpleasant part of life for those living in countries engaged in conflict. But he insists the vision is worth pursuing, especially for the sake of connecting those 1 billion people to the rest of the world. And for those who think it’s science fiction, he says, “We need to engage in social fiction to make it happen.”

Andreas Raptopoulos’ talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on TED.com »