Greek businessman Andreas Raptopoulos plans to deploy military-style hardware for humanitarian purposes by using drones – unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – to deliver medical supplies to remote areas.
“When you think of all the robotics companies in the world, I don’t know any whose first customer was not military. This is how robotics companies are built. We thought: screw that, we are going to replace the military with the humanitarian,” the entrepreneur said.
The idea came the night before a presentation at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University. This light-bulb moment evolved into a startup company called Matternet to provide help to people in developing parts of the world without road access.
Raptopoulos says such a system could leapfrog the installation of infrastructure, just as mobile networks had overtaken fixed lines in developing countries.
Small eight-propeller UAVs will be used to carry small items weighing up to 2kg, years before modern road networks could be constructed to connect remote areas.
The system would include the UAVs themselves, landing stations where the packages can be dropped off and transferred as well as the drone’s piloting and navigation software. Due to their short battery life, the drones would have to work in shifts of 10 minutes each.
The company has performed tests in Haiti and Dominican Republic as well as in Lesotho, which suffers from an AIDS epidemic. Lesotho has been identified as a place where the system could transfer laboratory samples from the countryside to urban hospitals.
According to Mr. Raptopoulos, aid agencies are being targeted as first users as well as pharmaceutical and logistics organizations. The company has ruled out the possibility of sales to the military. Ideally, drones and base stations would be bought by villages.
“Anybody can basically set up the transportation networks. It is decentralized. You don’t need governments, you don’t need big companies,” Raptopoulos noted.