Autonomous Drone Networks

Coming to a City Near You

Drones are nothing new but an autonomous drone is very different to the remote controlled devices currently swarming the consumer market. The US military has already made their interest in self piloting drones very clear, as have retail giants Amazon. They have even been applied in construction and natural disaster response. However, although technologists have droned on about independent flying machines for years, a fully operational system is yet to be launched. That is, until now. . .

As of next month, Californian logistics company Matternet will introduce the first urban, autonomous drone network in Switzerland, let’s look at why is this such a big deal, and how will it affect the adoption of autonomous technology.

The first ever autonomous drone zone
As far as countries go, Switzerland is a fantastic choice for Matterson’s autonomous drone debut. It’s home to a number of prestigious, technologically focused universities, and has topped the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s Global Innovation Index for six years running, and the country’s commitment to connectivity aligns neatly with Matternet’s vision – to ‘make access to goods as frictionless and universal as access to information’.

In partnership with Swiss Post, the Californian company revealed the Matternet Station on 20th September. The Station is operated via an app which creates shipping details. The item or items are then placed in a shipment box on the Station until a drone arrives to collect them, flying to and then depositing them at the recipient Station. The package is verified via QR codes, ensuring that the right delivery has reached the intended location. At the moment, the drones can carry up to two kilograms and travel a distance of 20km. Although they’re hardly robust, their real merit is the speed with which they can transport vital medical and laboratory supplies. In 30 minutes, a blood sample could be sent from a hospital to the lab. This could take hours if carried out using existing systems. Of course, this isn’t the only autonomous drone network out there. Other similar systems are currently under testing in various parts of the world. Zipline, for instance, is planning to launch a blood delivery service in Tanzania next year.

Delivering disruption
Matternet’s partnership with Swiss Post represents an important step towards the adoption of drone networks, autonomous or otherwise. Switzerland is a model for innovation, and other countries and cities will be keen to keep up. The long awaited, practical application of the network is a clear demonstration of increasing connectivity in urban spaces. It also indicates the steady rise of autonomous technology, making a noticeable impact on citizen’s lives. Putting it lightly, attitudes towards automation are mixed. Despite admittedly understandable reservations, Matternet’s drones utilise autonomous technology for benevolent means. Instead of threatening human employment, they do something that humans can’t do to improve medical and scientific infrastructures. Using the drones to carry important samples makes perfect sense, but eventually the range of items for delivery will increase and designers will have to accommodate this.

In short, expect to see bigger drones carrying bigger parcels. They will also need to travel further. Mercedes Benz is currently developing a ‘Vision Van’ with a launchpad for Matternet drones on the roof to help extend journey times. The automaker is also working with Starship Technologies to deploy autonomous delivery robots. Both in the sky and on solid ground, the autonomous arms race has well and truly begun.

Matternet’s autonomous network is the first real world example of self piloted drones in an urban area. Not only is it bringing greater efficiency to life changing sectors, but it’s placing autonomous technology firmly in the public eye. In future, drone launch pads could become commonplace at key delivery sites like grocery stores and research labs, as well as on vehicles like Mercedes Benz’s Vision Van. Matternet are clearly pioneers of autonomous drone technology, and have found a strong foothold in Switzerland. What this has done is set an example to other countries and companies, proving that urban drone fleets are becoming more plausible. This is especially the case for time sensitive samples. So, although you might not receive your next parcel delivery via drone, your city hospital just might.

Have autonomous drones finally moved out of the testing phase? Will Matternet’s network help to familiarise consumers with automated technology? What are the main obstacles to the adoption of self piloted drones? Share your thoughts and opinions.