Unmanned “Unplugged”

Paola Santana, Matternet Chief Regulatory and Strategy Officer

Born out of Singularity University, Matternet aims to transform how essential goods can be transported around the world using small unmanned aircraft. Unmanned Systems sat down with the startup’s Paola Santana to discuss the company’s revolutionary concept and plans for the future.

What do you see as the most pressing need for an unmanned aircraft-based delivery system?

We think that transportation hasn’t been revisited for a while. As a human civilization, we’ve been making better decisions on the kinds of technologies we use in a linear way, so we have improved our cars, we have improved aircraft, but we haven’t really done leapfrog revisions. At Matternet, we´ve been thinking about whether ground transportation is really the future of access to goods and mobility for people and if the way we are building infrastructure and growing our already congested cities is sustainable in the long run.

What sort of payloads are best suited for this system?

We are looking at anything that is lightweight and essential. Lightweight for us is less than two kilos, or five pounds. As for essential, if you live in New York, something essential might be your cell phone, which you forgot at home. If you live in Haiti, essential is a pill, a diagnostic, a vaccine or a medication. We’re focused right now on lightweight medical needs. It’s something where we can have a super high impact in locations that have no other transportation alternatives.

How cost efficient is this system versus existing delivery methods?

The cost of carrying two kilos over 20 kilometers is less than one dollar. If you think of using a car from point A to point B to move something 20 kilometers away, it is definitely not going to cost only one dollar. The lower the weight and size of the vehicle is, the more efficient it is. The more similar it is to the weight of the payload it is carrying, the more efficient it is as well. Less weight is less energy.

What did you learn from your field testing in the Dominican Republic and Haiti?

We wanted to learn a couple of things. First, is the concept valid? We started with the idea in 2011 to use UAS for delivery. There was not a market, an industry. There was really not an interest. We said, let’s go to places where these could really transform the way communities are linked to the social and economic hubs in cities and towns, and let’s see what happens. We proved, number one, that the roads many countries have right now are really deficient. When it’s raining, there’s no way to get from point A to point B. We actually experienced it. Number two, we wanted to see if this technology would work there. We were able to fly over the cities of Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince and over other rural areas and small towns. At that point, our range was only 10 kilometers, but we wanted to know if this short distance would make a difference, and we figured that 10 kilometers could help a lot. Third, we needed to get governmental support to make this happen. We tested the will of decision makers to implement this solution. In the DR, the support was 100 percent, getting the Institute of Civil Aviation backing our operations and providing the first experimental permissions. The risk to conduct these flight tests was high, but the government understood that the rewards and benefits were higher.

In Haiti, we flew over a refugee camp, where we delivered medicines and chocolates to the kids. And we were amazed that people were not afraid of the technology. They were waiting for the vehicles to land, to check what this “flying thing” was carrying. They now associate a vehicle with something good; a flying vehicle bringing things that they need to live.

What is the status of your aircraft and ground station infrastructure?

We right now have a fully designed and tested vehicle. We know exactly how it looks like and how it performs. This is something we feel very comfortable with as our first product. And on the ground station, we are still in the design and iteration phase. We might have it later this year or maybe next year.

The ground station is a designated, preapproved and pre-identified location on the ground where the vehicle can take off and land safely. We know wherever there is a ground station, there is nothing else around, and the vehicle has clearance to take off and land in any given time. We don’t want them landing in a dangerous area or in random locations. We want them landing in a safe, known place again and again. In second place, it provides reliability and security from where the vehicles are flying to and from. For the FAA, this may be a relief, because we are only flying between known locations.

How will you protect your ground stations if they are unattended?

It depends where we’re operating. Outside the United States, there will be some challenges. In the DR, for example, even the ATM machines get stolen, so many need to be guarded. We will need to have a series of protocols in place, including having guarded ground stations if they happen to be in public space. If it’s a private ground station located on the roof of a building or in a private environment, then it’s up to the user and who has access to their building. Still, there will be situations that will be solved as we go.

How will you protect your air vehicles if people object to them flying overhead?

People wonder if they can shoot the vehicles down. We were really concerned about this until we went to the DR and Haiti for the trials. Our vehicles are super small. They are less than five kilos in total, and they are flying at 400 feet, so you can barely see them. They are moving at 40 kilometers per hour. So it is very hard to identify them as a target. What is going to be really critical is when the vehicle is taking off and landing, because it will be closer to the ground and to people.

What sort of failure rate are you expecting, and how will you deal with that?

We are planning a lot of redundancy in our system. But we do expect some level of mistakes and errors in the beginning. There are some risks that we are willing to take on, but the more hours we have flying, the more we become experts at doing this, the range is going to increase, the more reliable the system gets and the less expensive it gets. We know that we will lose some vehicles. We don’t want to assume that this will never happen. We want to assume that this will happen and have A, B, C and D plans for when it happens.

What is the biggest hurdle you see to making this happen?

I would say regulation. The regulatory problem exists because the technology has some gaps and is not there yet. It is not fully mature yet. For example, sense-and-avoid capabilities are not completely developed or accurate. Because sense and avoid doesn’t exist in a way that the FAA can totally rely on, the FAA cannot say, let’s have commercial vehicles flying around, because they know if one of those vehicles figures something is coming its way, it won’t be able to make a smart decision. I think once that is done, the FAA will be more open to try more things and regulation will be less stringent.

Do you see this system working best in only certain parts of the world, or could it be adapted to more urban areas as well?

Both very rural and very urban environments are the scenarios where our technology makes the most sense. It’s like the Internet — where does it make the most sense, in L.A. or in the middle of the Amazon in Brazil? Once you understand that this system can become the next big thing for a whole industry, then where do you start? We think that it needs to start where implementation barriers are lower and the need is much more higher. We see that in places with no roads and in places with lots of inefficient roads. But this is just what we’ve discovered. We know that people will find ways to use Matternet that we haven’t envisioned yet.

How did the idea for Matternet come about?

Matternet started in Singularity University in the summer of 2011. We were thinking how to tackle poverty from an access and mobility perspective. Who are the poorest people in the world? Those with no access to goods and services, health care, and other basic services can’t reach them. We were thinking on connecting isolated communities without having to build roads, using autonomous flying vehicles. Imagine Mother Teresa meets “The Jetsons.” Our dream is to see every region in the world, big and small, poor and wealthy, interconnected — that the place where you were born doesn’t define the things that you have access to, be it health care or education. We are here to complete what the Internet started.