It’s going to be a while before Amazon’s drones are delivering Christmas presents to anyone’s doorstep. But in the remote forests of Papua New Guinea, one startup’s vision for delivery drones is already coming to life.
In September, executives of Matternet, a Silicon Valley drone startup, traveled to the Pacific Island nation at the invitation of the government and Doctors Without Borders staff, who are helping battle a serious tuberculosis epidemic in the rural regions of the country.
"We’re working in one of the biggest swamps in the world," says Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, in French) program manager Eric Pujo. "It is a very challenging environment, and to run a good tuberculosis project, one of the key points is diagnostic. The earlier you can put a patient under treatment, the more likely you’ll stop it from spreading," he says.
The trouble for the doctors is transporting patients' samples, which need to be analyzed quickly for an accurate diagnosis. In the Kerema district, the samples must travel from clinics to a central hospital that is anywhere from 15 to 85 miles away. Roads are either barely passable due to the mud or don’t exist at all. Planes, boats, and walking make for an unpredictable journey that can take a few hours or a few days. Pujo, who had heard a presentation given by Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos, got in touch with the company when he realized that low-cost drones could be an ideal alternative.
The pilot project is an early test for Matternet, a Palo Alto, California, company that aims to build drone transportation networks in world regions with limited or poor roads. In August, the company worked with the World Health Organization to complete another pilot test in the high mountains of Bhutan. Raptopoulos believes drones can allow developing nations to "leapfrog" in transportation and shipping, just as they have in the realm of communications, where the rise of cheaper mobile devices minimized the need to build expensive landline infrastructure.
In the Papua New Guinea testing, Matternet’s quadcopters carried dummy payloads equal to the weight of up to 10 TB test samples over distances of about 20 to 25 kilometers (12 to 15 miles). The setup is simple and done via an iPhone app. The drones, which cost up to $5,000, land at a predetermined point where a person must be present. Eventually, the goal would be to build landing and charging stations.
The longest total trip made was 43 kilometers (27 miles), which required a battery charging stopover point. By car, the journey would take at least four hours over a distance of 63 kilometers. The drone completed it in 55 minutes.
Matternet’s trial showed promise—enough that Doctors Without Borders is likely to continue to work with Matternet to develop the program, pending a final feasibility report from the company, says Pujo.
But there will be major challenges, particularly with the battery’s limited range and Papua New Guinea's difficult weather conditions. For some of the faraway health centers, it won’t always be possible to land the drone and recharge its battery mid-trip, says Pujo.
Like many in the early emerging commercial drone industry, Raptopoulos believes that drones are the future of shipping, and that these kind of urgent health challenges in remote regions will be among the earliest use cases. For now, Matternet is focused on developing and launching the company’s first product.
Amazon’s and Google’s announcements earlier this year that they were working on their own drone delivery programs only have boosted interest in Matternet’s work, Raptopoulos says. Other companies, like the shipping service DHL in Germany, are already launching their own experimental projects.
"There was initially a lot of skepticism around this—is this really real? Is this really ready?" he says. "Organizations are now reaching out to us, trying to convince us to work with them."