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October 15, 2013 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Matternet will be a network of drones to deliver stuff (matter), “micro-transportation” that will allow unmanned aerial vehicles to ferry all sorts of (small) goods across long distances. Video (5m).

This was first announced around 2011 but I don't think it was ever covered at MeFi. A more recent update is from Summer 2012 with tests in Haiti. There was a TED talk in 2012 and another one in 2013 (offline?), and this short updated from October 2013.
posted by stbalbach (56 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
October 15th is henceforth Robot Minion day on mefi.
posted by elizardbits at 9:15 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was just talking to someone a couple days ago about something like this - the question I posed was "which do you think will be publicly/commercially available first, robot taxis by Google, or quadcopter drone pizza delivery?"
posted by NMcCoy at 9:18 AM on October 15, 2013


quadcopter drone pizza delivery?

I can't wait for the tricksy smart corvids to figure out how to steal pizza in midair.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:20 AM on October 15, 2013 [19 favorites]


Well, I think this is a horrible idea, unless its operations are proscribed to a very small number of niches where there is some substantial benefit accruing to society in general. Also needs to have very strong restrictions on where/what buildings/neighborhoods/cities the network could operate.

Don't get me wrong, there is something cool about it but it looks like a potential disaster for quality of life. And I have two Syma S107 micros in house, I love choppas!
posted by Mister_A at 9:20 AM on October 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Definitely parsed "Matternet" as "Matt-ernet" and assumed it was a mathowie joint.
posted by clavicle at 9:20 AM on October 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's all fun and games until someone get decapitated
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:21 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Drones are incredibly Energy inefficient, so they are the most unsuitable for the Task. It also can only fly in good Conditions. Also the Infrastructure to deliver Goods to thousands of People is huge as well as the required skill set.

This might work for small tasks and areas, but building proper roads is the better long-term solution. Also a reasonably priced off-road vehicle can cross pretty tough areas. Why give the Jobs to Drones, when a Fleet of Human Drivers and Cars can do it better?
posted by homodigitalis at 9:23 AM on October 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


This seems like a poor idea overall. Inefficient, a solution in search of a problem. Also, what happens when DeliveryDroneZed7539-alpha doesn't notice the strange ticking noise or white powder leaking from the corner of the package it's to deliver?
posted by stenseng at 9:28 AM on October 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


building proper roads is the better long-term solution

Roads and cars are not a proper long-term solution to anything. How about really robust public and bicycles?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:30 AM on October 15, 2013


Somewhere - and I'm damned if I can find the original quote now - I read an observation that one of the best things the developed world could export to African countries is information on new materials rather than new gadgets. Composites, textiles, resins, and that sort of thing.
posted by jquinby at 9:31 AM on October 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think instead we should have a network of those barrel cannons from Donkey Kong Country to get things from place to place. Those seem pretty efficient, I mean, he's a full-grown gorilla.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:35 AM on October 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


Also, what happens when DeliveryDroneZed7539-alpha doesn't notice the strange ticking noise or white powder leaking from the corner of the package it's to deliver?

This is a bad idea but not because of teh terrorism. Good grief.

No one ever notices that shit until it's too late anyway.
posted by IvoShandor at 9:43 AM on October 15, 2013


How the hell do you stop people from throwing rocks at them and stealing whatever is trying to be delivered?
posted by spicynuts at 9:46 AM on October 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Energy losses in a motor vehicle. Cars are extremely inefficient for transport. "Only about 15 percent of the energy from the fuel you put in your tank gets used to move your car down the road". Don't know how that compares with copters but I bet they are much better since there is little energy loss to run a small electric engine.
posted by stbalbach at 10:00 AM on October 15, 2013


Fully supportive of a more efficient transport system, though I would need to see that this is, in fact, more efficient.

Also, TheBoozeDrone. How could that delivery service not take off?
posted by Slackermagee at 10:07 AM on October 15, 2013


What about the whale-roads? One already exists which covers 70% of the planet, and it's extremely efficient and environmentally friendly. (No bikes allowed, though.)

The only hitch is that we'll need a way to build a whale-road to every door, but I believe we're already on track for a very promising solution there.
posted by forgetful snow at 10:07 AM on October 15, 2013


This is a bad idea but not because of teh terrorism. Good grief.

No one ever notices that shit until it's too late anyway.


But won't someone think of the children??? ;)
posted by stenseng at 10:08 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ninja Coffee was my dream. Delicious flat white dropped into your hand, no matter where you are.

All in all, Drone Coffee seems a lot more realistic.
posted by welovelife at 10:14 AM on October 15, 2013


This doesn't seem terribly realistic to me for its stated purpose of transporting goods in developing nations with poor road infrastructure.

1. The drones need to recharged regularly. They mention solar power, which seems like a great idea until you think back to the bad weather they describe in the first part of the video which necessitates the drones in the first place.
2. They need to be maintained.
3. If a drone goes down somewhere en route from A to B, it needs to be found and repaired, and there already no roads where it's flying over.
4. Even if it works flawlessly, it surely can't carry more than a few kilograms of material.
5. It is an extremely valuable piece of technology flying around in impoverished areas of the world, and it seems naive to suppose nobody will try to make off with it or use it for parts.
posted by whir at 10:15 AM on October 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Gotta disagree, stbalbach. It takes a HUGE amount of energy to lift something off the ground and keep it there. Best way to do this is to build wee railroads delivering crepes and pizza and stuff like that, very efficient.
posted by Mister_A at 10:26 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


ermm... what would they use the parts for? I think this is a fan-f-ing-tastic idea, there are lots of ways it might take form. A depot station down the block from my house a la Amazon delivering to 7-Elevens or something like that. Maybe it doesn't fly, maybe it's a a Google smart truck driving to my door and dropping off a re-usable plastic crate full of the groceries I never have time to get from the store.. Smart copters dropped from big-ass cargo planes to individual destinations in a metro area that return to the airport warehouse depot. On board cameras for security.. unlock codes via some kind of secure communication so the recipient is the only one who can get it to unload.. I'd love to go out on the porch and watch a little drone copter bringing me my prescriptions from Walgreens... or my snail-mail for that matter..
posted by anguspodgorny at 10:30 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that by sending goods from point-to-point more or less individually using small drones, you're missing out on all the economies of scale that you get when you move things around in huge ships, cargo planes, and trucks. It's bound to be miserably inefficient, simply because the mass ratio of transporter to cargo is going to be really high compared to bulk methods.

I could see something like this having a potential niche for small, extremely important packages (think medical supplies, maybe) that need to be delivered immediately to remote locations, where cost is no object. Of course, we currently use small (piloted) planes and helicopters for jobs like that, and I'm not sure what the benefit of removing the pilot would be.
posted by Scientist at 10:30 AM on October 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


After getting into multicopter flying and construction it's pretty clear that all delivery by robotic quadcopter plans are just pie in the sky (see what I…)

Battery life is just not there. On a perfectly optimised copter with little payload it can fly for at most 10 minutes. Add weight and you massively reduce fly time. Add more batteries rapidly takes you into the point of diminishing returns.

The best professional hexacopters that fly cameras like the RED or high end DSLRs get less than 10 minutes. All told we're talking $4-5K for the hardware.

It's just silly.
posted by schwa at 10:31 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Delivering SD cards by air drop is much more secure than sending the same data over internet protocol, and might well get you better bandwidth if it's a lot of data.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:33 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


You don't have to pay him or her. And he or she is not driving 4 tons of machinery around from house to house to deliver 60g of paper, or a plastic bottle of pills...
posted by anguspodgorny at 10:33 AM on October 15, 2013


I think we should have networks of overhead monorails, on which travel suspended covered bicycle-like pods. You get into one, tell it your destination and pedal - a central computer controls points and safes the pods if necessary.

You could throw those things up in no time on delicate yet strong arched supports from the streets, they wouldn't have much of a shadow, and an electrical motor system in special on-demand pods would arrive for those who can't pedal.

Get on or off at stations attached to tall buildings. Simples.

As for drone transport - it will come. But not yet.
posted by Devonian at 10:36 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Cars are extremely inefficient for transport.

Yeah, the only thing that's worse would be tiny robot helicopters. Consider the car, turning 15% of the energy in its fuel into motion. That includes the rolling resistance of the tires, losses for braking and idling, etc, and is a pretty conservative estimate.

Now consider the helicopter. Solar panel charging is going to be pretty unreliable, as mentioned above. So first we have the efficiency of the power plant, which will be 50-60% for a high-tech combined cycle plant, but in developing areas is more likely to be 30% or so for a basic coal or oil plant.

Then there's the battery charger. Small chargers like you have for AA batteries and cell phones can be as low as 6-20% efficient at turning electricity from the outlet into usable charge from the battery. Larger chargers like for your laptop can run as high as 70%. The copters are probably using something more like this.

Now there's the copter itself. Small propellers of the size used on these tiny copters run at 40% to 60% efficiency. Our numbers so far: 30% power plant * 70% battery charger * 50% propeller = 10% efficiency. This is before we've actually attached a copter to those propellers, so there would be some further loss to aerodynamic drag. Also consider that those propellers point down and mostly keep the copter in the air. Not sure about numbers, but at a very generous guess I'd say there can't be more than 25% of the propeller energy going into actually moving the copter horizontally, if that.

So you're down to 2% efficiency from fossil fuel to moving things, probably leaving some out some losses and making some generous estimates. Cars are starting to look pretty good.
posted by echo target at 10:39 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Drone pizza delivery.
posted by mbrubeck at 10:55 AM on October 15, 2013


Wouldn't drone RC cars be much more efficient, albeit less hype-friendly?
posted by Pyry at 11:02 AM on October 15, 2013


People have been talking about delivering mail by guided missile for almost a century. I think each age looks for ways to (mis)apply the technology it has available.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 11:05 AM on October 15, 2013


Yes, flight is inefficient. How much does a pizza delivery boy cost though? What about an emergency medical delivery service? Applications exist. And these small drones are harmless enough.

If we're discussing heavier items, like groceries, or if pizza delivery boys cost too much for airborne delivery, then you could try robotic cars. Just mitigate liability issues by making the car extremely small and light, like bicyclist size and weight. Anytime motorists creams your delivery vehicle they're insurance will replace it because its records prove the motorist was at fault.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:13 AM on October 15, 2013


Well duh, make them wind powered. They have rotors after all.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:35 AM on October 15, 2013


Regarding RC cars, the navigation problem is just so much simpler for flying vehicles. Generally, to get a drone from point A to point B, you take off, fly a straight line to B, then land. It's easier to avoid rivers, lakes, bridges, curbs, stairs, trees, rocks, bushes, people, animals, etc.
posted by jjwiseman at 11:37 AM on October 15, 2013


then you could try robotic cars. Just mitigate liability issues by making the car extremely small and light, like bicyclist size and weight

So a car that's exactly like a bicycle?
posted by Ham Snadwich at 11:38 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


stbalbach: "Don't know how that compares with copters but I bet they are much better since there is little energy loss to run a small electric engine."

OK, folks, here's the basics. REGARDLESS OF WHAT ENGINE YOU USE, this is how various transport systems stack up in efficiency:

1. Water (surface only).
2. Rails.
3. Roadways.
4. Heavier-Than-Air.

Dirigibles obviously beat out #4, but when you add back in the extra power required to maintain position against winds, and the return trip into the wind, they aren't as miraculous as they seem at first.

The power needed to lift 100 kg up 330 m (FAA min floor for air travel in US cities) is 300 MJ (roughly 2.5 US gallons of gas).That's just to get it up there; it doesn't include any actual transport (destination = where it took off), nor the energy it burns staying up there while moving. And, of course, it assumes a crash landing; soft landings require more.

That same amount of gasoline could have moved that 100-kg package 50 miles in a car (city driving), easily. And cars aren't very efficient.

Oh, but your copter uses an efficient electrical engine? Big deal. Unless it burns negative gasoline (the kind your car pumps into the gas station for refunds!), it won't be more efficient than cars until long after 50 miles. If ever. (Smart money says "never".)

EDIT:
schwa: "Add weight and you massively reduce fly time. Add more batteries rapidly takes you into the point of diminishing returns."

Oh, yeah: I forgot that this estimate assumes your batteries and copter weigh nothing.

Heavier-than-air transport will never be more efficient than boats, trains, nor cars, over any distance at all. Ever. So long as the Earth has mass.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:41 AM on October 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Currently, batteries & weight are two big problems that wlll make this impractical except perhaps in specialized circumstances (delivery of crucially important medicine in an area with poor infrastructure).

But we're not done advancing battery technology yet.

The point of Matternet is not efficiency, or replacing existing large scale transportation systems. It's finding a new solution to a small, & specialized--but important--set of physical delivery problems.
posted by jjwiseman at 11:47 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, even though Matternet's renderings show multicopters, fixed wing drones are an option: They are more efficient, with greater payload capacity and longer endurance/greater range. Copters make landing and taking off easier, but...

Aerovel's Flexrotor UAV is a fixed-wing VTOL vehicle that can take off vertically, hover, fly with a 0.9 kg payload for more than 40 hours, and land vertically--all autonomously: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icsLzAj6Xis
posted by jjwiseman at 11:57 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


We should forget the pizza bullshit, IAmBroom, et al. I'd envision medical couriers being the killer app, no pun intended.

How about anti-venom delivery? A black mamba bite can kill in as little as 30 min. A cobra bite can kill in as little at 15 min. Just give the drone a jet engine already!

What about delivering even smaller robots that provide emergency medical treatment while the patient waits for the ambulance? Or heck robots that just do specific surgeries on the spot under remote control by a doctor.

At present, there are helicopter ambulances that deal with some extremely urgent situations, but helicopters inherently endanger the people riding inside, cost incredible sums, require longer to prep for flight, etc. Airborne drone delivery could reduce those expenses.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:11 PM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why not diversify? Here are load capacities some alternative aircraft:

Carrier pigeon: 75 grams
Flexrotor: 900 grams
Golden eagle: 3 kg
Hexacopter: 4 kg
Ultralight: 200 kg
posted by swift at 12:23 PM on October 15, 2013


EDIT:

Periodic friendly mod reminder to not use the edit function to add content to a comment after the fact. It's just for typo-level stuff; if you've got more to add, write another comment, that's totally fine.

posted by cortex at 12:34 PM on October 15, 2013


MATTERSKYNET

ftfy
posted by snuffleupagus at 12:51 PM on October 15, 2013


All this talk about the inefficiencies of various modes of powered transport makes good old human-delivered mail look pretty smart. Of course, your pizza might get cold by then.

But what if we applied all these hexacopter-research resources to the reheatable pizza problem?
posted by Western Infidels at 12:59 PM on October 15, 2013


What about the vast unused network of household pets? That dog is sleeping on your couch when he could be out earning his keep.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 1:00 PM on October 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


The power needed to lift 100 kg up 330 m (FAA min floor for air travel in US cities) is 300 MJ (roughly 2.5 US gallons of gas).

Sorry IAMBroom, but unless I'm completely misunderstanding you, I think you're off on that by three orders of magnitude. The potential energy of 100Kg at 330m is about 323Kj, not Mj, or the energy content of 1/500th of a gallon of gas.

This makes much more sense when you consider your calculation in the context of small aircraft, many of which weigh perhaps 10 times as much as your hypothetical, carry only 10s of gallons of fuel, and definitely do not burn it all, or even a significant fraction, in the first several minutes of climb.
posted by CHoldredge at 1:07 PM on October 15, 2013


Pneumatic tubes. Not so great for pizza, but fine for calzones.
posted by wobh at 1:23 PM on October 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Raptopoulos imagines networks of tiny drones that can deliver medical supplies to far-flung areas in the developing world, and he sees delivery drones soaring over the traffic-jammed streets

Hey, what's this drone on my lawn? Must have hit a bird or something. Hey, this thing opens up. Let's see what's inside... a kidney, some saline bags, and 2 pounds of oxycontin..
posted by crapmatic at 1:23 PM on October 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


I guess it's worth pointing out that this would be illegal in the United States, since the Federal Register Notice - Clarification of FAA Policy restricts commercial activity to organizations with a Special Airworthiness Certificate, which is nearly impossible to get unless you're Blackwater, Raytheon, Honeywell, etc. Any innovative commercial drone activity is happening outside the U.S., and "commercial" has a very broad meaning--I heard a former Industry Co-Chair of the FAA’s Small UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee say that he thought a small farmer who flew a drone over his field to get aerial imagery to analyze irrigation/pest damage/etc. would not be legal under current FAA guidelines.

It is unfortunate that the current crop of innovative drone companies have to operate outside the U.S.
posted by jjwiseman at 1:26 PM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Since we're busily turning our planet into an environmental hellscape and will probably soon need domed cities with municipal-level HVAC, how about little gecko robots that climb on the inside of the dome and drop parachutes with their payload?
posted by XMLicious at 1:33 PM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


jeffburdges: "We should forget the pizza bullshit, IAmBroom, et al."

Oh, absolutely. I just wanted to lay down something the lay people would understand, so we could discuss reality - like your proposal.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:02 PM on October 15, 2013


CHoldredge: "Sorry IAMBroom, but unless I'm completely misunderstanding you, I think you're off on that by three orders of magnitude. The potential energy of 100Kg at 330m is about 323Kj, not Mj, or the energy content of 1/500th of a gallon of gas.
"

100e3 grams * 9.8 m/s^2 * 330 m = 323,400,000 g-m^2/s^2 = 300MJ, plus a little. I'm betting you forgot that kg needed conversion.

If you think a teaspoon of gas can lift an adult human 1000' into the air...
posted by IAmBroom at 2:04 PM on October 15, 2013


I think that the energy efficiency of drone delivery is not a very interesting question and mostly irrelevant to the idea of Matternet, but Joules are (kg⋅m²)/s².
U = mgh

where U is the potential energy of the object relative to its being on the Earth's surface, m is the mass of the object, g is the acceleration due to gravity, and h is the altitude of the object. If m is expressed in kilograms, g in m/s2 and h in metres then U will be calculated in joules.
U = 100 kg * 9.8 m/s^2 * 330 m = 323400 J

That's about 1.9 teaspoons of gasoline--which is a lot! (Yeah, gasoline is amazing!)
posted by jjwiseman at 2:32 PM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


In my experience any inclement weather will bring quadroters to a screeching halt.
posted by humanfont at 2:47 PM on October 15, 2013


Damn. I stand corrected, jjwiseman.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:22 PM on October 15, 2013


Almost every time I fill up my car, I have at least a small moment where I freak out about how little actual liquid gas I went through in the interim to move a literal ton of matter several hundred miles.
posted by cortex at 3:31 PM on October 15, 2013


Yeah, I think people just vastly underestimate how much energy there is in petrol, even though they're faced with it every single time they fill the car.
posted by Sebmojo at 5:25 PM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you're not connecting this to a Hyperloop backbone and Segway feeder network, you're really missing a trick or two.

BTW, that five-minute video is utterly full of useless wankery about "the modern world" for the first 1:15 and doesn't begin talking about the real idea until 4:15, finishing up with African music (and a shot of Igauzu, which isn't in Africa) around 4:45, leaving just 30 seconds of actual discussion of the idea. The best part was the world map showing "Phase 3" with presumed non-hexacopter crossings of the Atlantic Ocean.
posted by dhartung at 1:15 AM on October 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


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