WCS 2016: Saving lives with the help of Matternet cargo drones

Matternet's Oliver Evans points out the features of the UAV system being tested in Malawi and elsewhere.

Matternet’s Oliver Evans points out the features of the UAV system being tested in Malawi and elsewhere.

BERLIN – On the final day of the World Cargo Symposium, the future of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the industry was a hot topic, especially following a morning presentation by Matternet, a Silicon Valley-based manufacturer of drones that are currently being uded to deliver life-saving drugs to remote field clinics in Malawi.

In the “Matternet in Africa” presentation, Oliver Evans, formerly the chief cargo officer with SwissWorld Cargo and now the head of global business development for Matternet, discussed how test flights in Malawi have been able to cut the delivery time of blood samples from HIV victims to the nearest hospital from days to just hours or minutes. The Matternet UAV, which Evans showed to the WCS audience, is able to carry a one- kilometer payload in about 15 minutes each way in Malawi, compared to 18 days previously.

Use of the drone system, Evans said, has the potential to save thousands of lives in Malawi, which has struggled for decades with a serious HIV problem. By using drones to ferry blood samples and medicine to remote areas with poor roads, people can receive treatment and diagnoses much more quickly, which is especially helpful considering how many HIV-infected people may be moving from village to village.

The drone made specifically for cargo by Matternet, Evans said, is simply another form of aviation, but one that requires manufacturers to agree on the development of integrated, safe systems to gain greater public acceptance. “This is not a drone,” Evans said, “it’s a logistics solution.”

Following secure routes generated by Matternet’s cloud-based software, the vehicles are programmed to land only on pre-registered landing pads that Matternet will supply to the customers, which prevents the UAVs from getting lost. The system is already in use in several developing nations and in Evans’ home country of Switzerland, where Matternet, Swiss Post and SwissWorldCargo formed a partnership to transport pharmaceuticals. In Switzerland, Matternet has earned special approval to operate on certain pre-set routes, none of which are over heavily populated areas.

Safety in operating drones is a priority, said Juergen Keitel, community lead for aviation and travel, mobility industries, with the World Economic Forum. He said UAVs are seen as a last-mile solution, but unfortunately there are rogue operators — Keitel showed the audience a video clip of a downhill ski racer at a World Cup race barely escaping a drone that clipped by him as he turned in a gate. The FAA in the United States is responding to the increase in drone use, he said, but the administration is still collaborating with other agencies, such as NASA, to redefine airspace to include UAV traffic and to consider other infrastructural and air traffic management needs for this UAV technology.

Evans said that, globally, there are 20 million drones in operation. In Europe, 22 countries have regulations and 7,000 companies are using drones for agricultural use, construction or inspections. Many drones have advanced stabilization systems that are better than most helicopters, said WCS speaker Chris Proudlove, chairman of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Insurance Association. He said “sense and avoid” technology makes it less likely that a drone will hit another object or a human being. When asked by an audience member about drones getting into the hands of a terrorist, Proudlove said it’s not much different than users of model aircraft. “Any bad actor could send a bomb on a drone,” he said. Evans added that it is a very real threat, but nothing different from threats to manned aircraft. Theft and physical damage to parties on the ground are all risks, Proudlove said, but the insurance companies are looking at ways for operators to minimize risk.

Since UAV technology is changing so rapidly, Evans said Matternet won’t be selling the vehicles directly; rather they will be deployed as a service, with the user getting a secure application for use via mobile phone.

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