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Quadcopter Drone Network Will Transport Supplies For Disaster Relief 113

Posted by Soulskill
from the rise-of-the-machines dept.
kkleiner writes "A startup called Matternet is building a network of quadcopter drones to deliver vital goods to remote areas and emergency supplies to disaster-stricken areas. The installation of solar-powered fueling station and an operating system to allow for communications with local aviation authorities will allow the network to be available around the clock and in the farthest reaches of the world. 'Matternet’s drone network has three key components. First, the drones—custom-built autonomous electric quadcopters with GPS and sensors, capable of carrying a few kilos up to 10 kilometers (and more as the tech advances). Next, the firm will set up a network of solar-powered charging stations where drones autonomously drop off dead batteries and pick up charged ones. A drone battery that can travel 10 km need not limit the drone itself to 10 km — rather, these drones can theoretically travel the whole network by swapping out batteries. The final component will be an operating system to orchestrate the drone web, share information with aviation authorities, and fly missions 24/7/365.'"
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Quadcopter Drone Network Will Transport Supplies For Disaster Relief

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  • by Neo-Rio-101 (700494) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @02:17AM (#43791071)

    Well now, the Thunderbirds are truly obsolete!

  • by Anonymous Coward

    In the sort of remote disaster prone areas that this would be useful, the batteries and any copper will be ratted by the locals, and everywhere else, the stations will be used as target practice.

    • by Immerman (2627577) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @02:32AM (#43791109)

      You have a dim view of humanity my anonymous friend. Justified, perhaps, but dim.

      What I want to know if why the %$#@! are they using electric drones if the idea is to service remote areas? 10km? Give me a couple days to warm up and I could carry 100lbs/day of supplys that far on foot without hardly trying. Electric is nice and all but it's still what, an order of magnitude or so lower in energy density than hydrocarbons? When you choose ideaology or engineeering convenience over actual real-world use-case scenarios don't be surprised when your brilliant new product is still-born.

      • by SuricouRaven (1897204) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @02:47AM (#43791165)

        Response time. You have to follow terrain, the drone does it in a straight line and at higher speed.

        The electric I imagine is so the charging stations can operate for years without refueling or repair. A useful feature, as they are all advertising expensive parts ready for the looting, so would probably have to be placed in concealed, inaccessible locations in the middle of nowhere. Of course, they could just use a much larger drone with an engine and not need the stations at all... it'd seem easier to just automate the long-established airdrop technology. Plane flies out, drops crates of supplies on parachute, plane flies back.

        • A better option would be to combine these with something like Aeroscraft cargo blimp to haul 60 tons od stuff in hours (20 -30) to disaster area and then do the delivery by drones.

          The stuff could be preassembled kits of food rations, water purification, wide-spectrum antibiotics, perhaps a heater packaged in a light sheltering material with simple, drawn, cuilturally independent instructions in every item.
          • by wagnerrp (1305589)
            60 tons of cargo is an absolutely immense "blimp". The largest lighter-than-air craft built to date only had a payload of around 10 tons.
            • Odd you should say that the largest lighter-than-air craft could carry only 10 tons.

              A simple google search reveals that the Hindenburg [wikipedia.org] apparently had a lift capacity of 10,000kg, which is indeed 10 (metric) tons, or approximately 10 "long tons". Something closer to 11 "short tons", though.

              I was thinking the CycloCrane [wikipedia.org] would have a larger lift, but apparently that was limited to 2 tons (theory; 1 ton in practice, it turned out).

        • So you're planning on putting lots of these expensive, hardened systems anywhere there 'might' be a disaster? Makes absolutely no sense.

          If a disaster is that likely in a given locale, it would make much more sense to build your bunker - and fill it with thousands of pounds of supplies instead of letting your tiny toy copter bring you a couple of cans of beer and some joints. Or do what the Air Force does, put the stuff in pallets, attach a parachute and airlift it to where it's needed.

          This is like trying

          • All true if it's just a disaster network - but even when no disaster is present, there could be uses. Perhaps enough to cover running costs. Much of the world is still very rural, with villages or even individual residences kilometers apart and joined only by narrow dirt tracks. Drones could be cheaper than couriers for light-weight deliveries. Drugs, books, consumer goods in general, replacement parts for damaged infrastructure. Think less crates of food, and more the type of things you might buy on Amazon

          • Using drones for delivery is not a new idea at all, problem is no one has the money to spend on something that will not make a profit. Other drone delivery systems are at least using them to deliver beer or newspapers or other things, and if a disaster struck I suppose they could be used to deliver water instead of beer https://www.google.com/search?q=drone+delivery [google.com]
        • Response time. You have to follow terrain, the drone does it in a straight line and at higher speed.

          And people don't have to be waiting for a call in three shifts, including drivers...

          If someone needs an emergency bottle of insulin or stuff like that, this could actually be the most sensible way of getting it to them ASAP.

        • Electric drones will require very minimal maintenance. Electric motors and batteries don't really need servicing, they don't require all the same fluids, they can last longer, they are less complex, and they can refuel in remote locations for free.

          A gas/diesel motor would need very frequent and regular servicing and a large maintenance team.

          • My suggestion sounds like a good approach. A good old-fashioned truck to haul the supplies most of the way, to the edge of the rubble/rabble/flood/ash, then use drones to distribute the supplies from there. The drones don't need really long range then, and their low capacity isn't such an issue when they can make a trip in half an hour.

            • by sirsnork (530512)

              Nothing with any payload capacity in the multi-rotor family can stay in the air for 30mins

              To give you and idea, a typical hobby quadcoptor with little to no payload has a flight time of ~ 10mins.

              Various competitions are held to make quads with high flight times and people get 60-90mins in them, however those could never carry any payload and are doing nothing but hovering

      • Because how do you think petrol gets from point A to point B?

      • What I want to know if why the %$#@! are they using electric drones if the idea is to service remote areas? 10km? Give me a couple days to warm up and I could carry 100lbs/day of supplys that far on foot without hardly trying.

        Drones don't need "a couple of days to warm up," and besides, what're you gonna do if there's a mountain or a canyon, a landfall, a sinkhole, collapsed buildings or anything similar in the way? That wouldn't be a problem at all for flying drones, but you could spend days trekking another path. In the time spent for you to "warming up" and finding another path to the destination the drones would've already sent several times the amount of stuff that you can carry.

    • by SuricouRaven (1897204) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @02:43AM (#43791155)

      Stations are no fun to shoot.

      The *drones* will be used as target practice. Not only good practice, but you get to play the mail-theft lottery. Shoot down a drone, maybe it's got a valuable cargo of expensive drugs. Or at least some food.

      • by Cenan (1892902)

        Or just shoot it down to put pressure on whomever needed what the drone carried. So many fun things to do with weapons and nothing but free time.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    We've reached the singularity now haven't we? I mean it's very singular how that company and that shill website happen to publish this sort of article at the same time when the kind of disaster they're talking about is in the news. It's times like these you're reminded that singularity hub isn't just faffing for the dimwitted, it's has a soul, too. A soul of darkness, granted, but a soul nonetheless.

  • Neat (Score:4, Insightful)

    by maitai (46370) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @02:27AM (#43791097) Homepage

    So a startup is trying to cash in on recent disasters with stuff that sounds great in the news feeds but they have no chance of actually deploying? Ok.

    • by Zouden (232738)

      I agree. If they were serious about providing disaster relief, rather than wanting to play with cool toys, they'd use full-size helicopter drones capable of delivering hundreds of kilograms and travel the whole distance without needing to refuel. That would be a genuinely useful service.

      How well are their little solar-charging quadrocopters going to fare in stormy weather?

      • by Yvanhoe (564877)
        Don't forget that they would use gasoline instead of solar toys. The energy density of oil is 20 times the one of the best batteries.
        • Don't forget that they would use gasoline instead of solar toys. The energy density of oil is 20 times the one of the best batteries.

          True, but electric motors scale down better than gasoline ones do.

          Just because gasoline is better for large vehicles doesn't make it better for everything.

          • by Yvanhoe (564877)
            Actually, gasoline engines scale down pretty well nowadays. You lose a bit of efficiency, but if you want to have range, they are still your best bet. A small gasoline RC plane could cross the Atlantic [wikipedia.org] for instance. You can't yet do that with an electrical one (unless you use solar panels of course).

            The reasons on why you don't see them in quadcopters are twofolds : First, they indeed are heavier and more complicated. Putting 4 of these in place is harder to do and you need to feed them gasoline, to have
  • by antifoidulus (807088) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @02:34AM (#43791123) Homepage Journal
    Supplies...including tacos? [tacocopter.com]
  • by rossdee (243626) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @02:50AM (#43791171)

    Sounds good for eathquakes, but how well do they fly in a hurricane or severe thunderstorm

    • by msauve (701917)
      Fly? They're not really supposed to fly. They're supposed to collect grant money.
    • Sounds good for eathquakes, but how well do they fly in a hurricane or severe thunderstorm

      Erratically, and mostly downwind?

    • No one will need disaster relief DURING a hurricane...or an earthquake for that matter.

  • Much more likely to be used for city-wide surveillance than for world-wide disaster relief.
    • Probably not.....you don't need autonomous charging stations for city-wide surveillance. You can just fly the drone back home.
      • ....you don't need autonomous charging stations for city-wide surveillance. You can just fly the drone back home.

        Don't forget about quick deployment either.

        A well placed charging station with a drone already inside ready to deploy at any time could shave off a number of minutes for getting first eyes on the scene. And sometimes, that very short initial lead time could be crucial in locating a drowning victim, or identifying a fleeing bank robber, or seeing what's going on just a few milliseconds after some gunshots are heard.

  • by phantomfive (622387) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @03:00AM (#43791221) Journal
    It fascinates me that they think they could make a profit with something like this.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      It fascinates me that they think they could make a profit with something like this.

      They don't make money off of what they're producing, they make money from the VCs. I think most of you know this already.
      1. Come up with something that seems new and unique but is totally useless (a few kilograms over 10km, really?).
      2. Get VC funding.
      3. Pay yourself a salary (Profit!) while you do "research and development" for a few years until the VC funding runs out and they realize your idea isn't going to work in the real world.
      4. Go to step 1.

      • The VCs are free to be as stupid as they want to be with their own money, but with titles like "Head of Regulatory Strategy" you know that they will be going after government money too which means that us taxpayers may still be footing the bill for this bullshit. That's what really chaps my hide.

  • by fantomas (94850) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @03:34AM (#43791337)

    My impression was that copters are difficult to fly in high winds/storm conditions. Is this true? will this also be true of these copters? If so, the claim that they can fly 24/7/365 is perhaps not credible?

    • by c0lo (1497653)

      fly missions 24/7/365?

      Yes, indeed: they'll take a break in leap years.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      24 seconds per minute.
      7 minutes per hour.
      365 hours per year.

      Seems doable. :-)

  • by fantomas (94850) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @03:37AM (#43791351)

    What is their average speed and reliability compared to a local with a donkey (classic and well proven difficult terrain portering option)?

    • by c0lo (1497653)
      TFS

      will allow the network to be available around the clock and in the farthest reaches of the world.

      Well, the patent for donkeys expired for some time: no way to get some money for building a network of donkeys in the far reaches of the world. Besides, I don't see how one may outsource the construction of donkeys to China.

    • by khakipuce (625944)

      Or compared to the carrying capacity of an African Swallow

    • orders of magnitude faster than a local and a donkey.

  • by Max_W (812974) on Wednesday May 22, 2013 @05:13AM (#43791615)
    What is needed for quadrcopters is a small quiet petrol/gas engine. An electric battery has got too little energy. Usually it is just 10 - 30 minutes.
    • by wagnerrp (1305589)
      What is needed for quadrotors is to stop using god damned quadrotors. If you want longer duration flight, you need to get that disc loading down, which means one big rotor instead of a bunch of small ones.
      • the quadrotors makes them more stable; more agile; and simpler (no swashplate needed, no servos for changing blade angles, no rudder control)

        • by wagnerrp (1305589)

          The quadrotors are simpler. I'll give you that. There is no swashplate, nor servos to control the swashplate, of course no rudder control simply means you can no longer control yaw.

          More stable? More agile? Both of those statements are completely false. The use of a swashplate means your lift is continuously variable from one side of the disc to the other. It's trivial to shift your center of lift directly over top your center of gravity, and produce stable flight. Further, a traditional helicopter only

          • I have a 3D helicopter. Good points on the agile/stable part.

            But simplicity is a big big factor. Especially if you've got 1,000 of these things swarming 24/7.

  • And very useless. The only thing crappier than the payload of a quadcopter is its range while carrying a full payload.

  • Sadly, this is yet another example of a cool concept that isn't going to get very far (no pun intended) due to the lack of the über power supply. At best, multirotor helicopters with any sort of payload have an endurance of about 15 minutes. Until that number gets well above the 60 minute threshold, this is all drawing-board stuff. And I'm talking about 60 minutes of on-mission performance which doesn't include getting to and from base camp. You're really going to need some sort of ultra-capacitor

  • A network of stations where fresh mounts/batteries can be picked up for a courier going over rugged and perhaps dangerous terrain.

    So... this would be the Droney Express?

  • Here's a peanut, time to recharge Here's a slice of apple, time to recharge.
  • I seem to remember using one of these during a GTA mission.
  • One thing I've been thinking about.. Everyone here assumes that the charging stations need to be placed out before the network of quads can start doing it's thing.

    But, if you had some special mapping drones, lighter and longer reach, with terrain mapping fly out first, then make the charging stations modular..

    The network could create a map of the area and build itself until it reached the target. And increasing network capacity would consist of adding more chargers and quads at the entry point,and the netwo

Little known fact about Middle Earth: The Hobbits had a very sophisticated computer network! It was a Tolkien Ring...

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