Every year, Singularity University graduates imagine a better future, where people use 3-D printing in zero gravity, mine waste for precious metals, and produce energy from ultra-efficient solar cells. One of the most seductive visions to emerge from last year’s Singularity class was the Matternet, a concept that would see electric autonomous aerial vehicles (AAVs) transporting supplies and people across the planet—essentially leapfrogging ground transportation in certain parts of the world, much like cell phones have allowed developing nations to leapfrog landlines.
The Matternet team has since split into two: one group that’s working on the project described here, and another that’s creating an open-source version. Matternet is a grand idea: creating an Internet-like network of AAVs that could one day allow someone to make a one-to-one sale with anyone in the world or send medication quickly to where it’s needed most, simply by delivering goods on a flying autonomous vehicle to its destination. But before Aria (that’s the name of Matternet’s open-source group) does that, it’s teaming up with ReAllocate—an organization that’s building a network of designers and engineers who want to use their expertise to work on humanitarian issues—for an experimental project at Burning Man (if Aria can secure tickets; that’s still up in the air).
The pilot project will, according to an ad posted by the ReAllocate team, "serve as a proof-of-concept for an open source network of retrofitted shipping containers that can be used to exchange goods and services in regions of the world that have no existing infrastructure, thus addressing the 'last mile’ challenge."
At Burning Man, that will potentially translate into a few retrofitted shipping containers—one housing 3-D printers, another with a 3-D capture studio—and some UAVs. Burners will be able to send out the camera-equipped UAVs to take pictures, bring them back, and print the pictures on a 3-D printer. Those 3-D printed objects can then be sent to recipients on the UAVs, with help from an Android app that sends out a GPS signal with the location of the device so that a drone can hone in on it. Aria will use one of the shipping containers as a ground station for the UAVs.
After the Burning Man pilot, ReAllocate plans to bring the shipping container project, dubbed "Startup Country," to Oakland to create a portable kitchen for food entrepreneurs. "We’re transforming shipping containers into innovation centers," says Dr. Mike North, the founder of ReAllocate. "We want to take them into the developing world, bring people from the community in, and facilitate them developing their own social enterprises."
As with the Burning Man project, Aria can use these shipping containers in the developing world as ground stations where it can swap batteries and payload. "The ground stations are like the routers of the Internet. They can extend range and capacity of the drones," explains Arturo Pelayo, the co-founder of Aria.
Pelayo imagines all sorts of uses for the open-source drone network once it gets up and running: HIV tests that can be quickly delivered to labs, eliminating potentially deadly waiting times; medicine delivery in remote areas; even observing permafrost disappearance and other global warming-related changes. Eventually, the UAVs might be able to transport people—but that’s not a priority. "If we make it easier for a villager in Africa who is manufacturing small necklaces to ship products through a cheap and ubiquitous network, their need to go into the cities is reduced dramatically," says Yasser Bahjatt, co-founder and CEO of Aria.
Pelayo emphasizes that Aria will not build its own drones; rather, it will offer hardware as a service. "We are going to have hundreds of vehicles in the air, and we need to find a way to have an artificial intelligence network to maneuver traffic," he says. Aria will be in charge of that network, while others can build open-source vehicles and applications—in other words, people can decide individually (or as part of communities) how they want the network to serve them.
There is a long way to go before Aria’s network begins to take shape. But first: getting some seed money.