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Why Bhutan Might Get Drone Delivery Copters Before Seattle Does 102

Posted by timothy
from the go-where-they'll-let-you-in dept.
From Quartz comes the story of a Silicon Valley start-up trying to kickstart a delivery system using package-laden drones to overfly gridlocked traffic — in Bhutan. Bhutanese roads are slow, the weather can be brutal, and there are very few physicians to go around. That’s why, earlier this year, the Bhutanese government and the World Health Organization reached out to Matternet, a Palo Alto company backed by some big name American investors that develops transportation networks using unmanned aerial vehicles to reach hard-to-access places. ... The project in Bhutan, however, is the first big test for the startup. Matternet is aiming to build a network of low-cost quadcopters to connect the country’s main hospitals with rural communities. Matternet uses small quadcopters that can carry loads of about four pounds across 20 km at a time, to and from pre-designated landing stations. The company is able to track these flights in real-time, and aims to eventually deploy fully-automated landing stations that replace drone batteries, giving them extended range and flight time. The drones it uses typically cost between $2,000-5,000.
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Why Bhutan Might Get Drone Delivery Copters Before Seattle Does

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 07, 2014 @03:38PM (#47625891)

    If there's one thing that works flawlessly in brutal weather, it's aircraft.

    • by i kan reed (749298) on Thursday August 07, 2014 @03:45PM (#47625945) Homepage Journal

      From wikipedia:
       

      As with other roads in Bhutan, the Lateral Road presents serious safety concerns due to pavement conditions, sheer drops, hairpin turns, weather and landslides

      .

      I think perhaps the problem is perhaps that weather knocks out mountain roads, and so supplies can't be delivered until they're repaired.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Multirotors are computer controlled, they work very well in bad weather. I have flown my quad in multiple hurricanes without issue. OK, maybe not hurricane force winds, only about 50 MPH but with upgraded motors hurricane force winds would be no problem. The computer does all the work, it's easy to fly.

      • Using winds properly could actually extend range in an interesting way. I think I've already seen some software for gliders that maps your path automatically like that.
        • Of course it does and that's being done on daily airline operations. For a drone which can't refule at their drop-off location, that's another thing though.
  • People who are living in a nation with annual average wages of $6000 not stealing from these "fully automated landing stations" seems really improbable. I mean, Bhutan apparently has an uniquely low violent crime rate for southern Asia, but that just seems like a lot of money for people so poor.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      But would they damage or steal it when told "this brings medicine"?

      • Would at least some people? Yes.

      • But would they damage or steal it when told "this brings incredibly expensive, easy to smuggle things"?

        FTFY, so you can see how obvious the answer is.

      • Probably yes, because "someone" will replace it "soon" and there will be little or no apparent hard done to the medical facilities. Of course, the reality is the harm is substantial, but it isn't readily visible to the perpetrators so it's quite easy for people to rationalize their behavior.

    • by geekoid (135745) <`moc.oohay' `ta' `dnaltropnidad'> on Thursday August 07, 2014 @03:53PM (#47626009) Homepage Journal

      So people you deem as poor are also automatically thieves?
      Nice.

    • low crime since Steven Seagal is a God. quote: In recent years, he made a widely publicised visit to Bhutan and has been proclaimed the reincarnation of a holy 13th-century Buddhist treasure hunter. link:http://www.bbc.com/travel/feature/20120416-kingdom-in-the-clouds-of-bhutan/2
    • People steel COPPER in the US, so whatever you do don't install indoor plumbing in your new home!
      • How do you steel copper? I've only ever heard of steeling iron.

        • by sumdumass (711423)

          Usually it is clad around the copper (like with pots and pans) but in some cases, the steel can be laminated.

          However, I assume he meant steal as in take without permission. In the US, all sorts of metal of value is regularly stolen and sold for scrap.

        • by Archangel Michael (180766) on Thursday August 07, 2014 @05:31PM (#47626649) Journal

          I only heard of Steely Dan ...

        • If copper were cheap, it would be a steel.
    • Fully automated on the top of a hospital building I think is what they are referring to. A drone that can automatically recharge itself and await a package or pickup location demand is huge.

      America should at the forefront of this level of innovation. Instead the FAA sticks its head in the sand while the rest of the world goes forward at an incredible pace.
      • by jklovanc (1603149)

        They are also referring to recharging stations between the hospitals. For example if the range of the drone is 40 miles and the destination is over 40 miles away there needs to be at least one recharge between the source and destination. The beauty of an automated recharge station is that they can be put anywhere along the route.

        • If hospital roofs are the target, I wonder if small fixed-wing drones wouldn't be even better. They're more energy-efficient, as far as I know, and they *can* launch and land on just a few meters of space.
      • by Obfuscant (592200)

        America should at the forefront of this level of innovation. Instead the FAA sticks its head in the sand while the rest of the world goes forward at an incredible pace.

        Yes, because the US is such a poor backwater with no roads or any other method of distributing life-saving drugs to its residents that such a drone system is required just to save lives. Cities like Seattle just don't have an existing distribution system for medicines and don't have pharmacies all around the place. And the US has no existing private and commercial aviation just like Bhutan doesn't, so there can be no issues of mixing human traffic with automated.

        I'm sorry that you can't get your Amazon de

  • If the weather is severe enough to delay ground traffic, what are the odds that a drone will be capable of flight/navigation? A full-sized, manned aircraft has fairly specific limitations (crosswind, turbulence, etc.) within which safe operation is possible. While there's at least one less life at risk (the pilot's), I can only imagine that current drones are even more tightly limited - not so much by legislation as by simple physics. If your aircraft has a maximum airspeed of 20kts, any wind exceeding t
    • by geekoid (135745)

      because once the storm stops, the road can be washed out for days.

      For crying out loud: Think.

      • by mmell (832646)
        What percentage of storms/weather-related phenomena there are sufficient to ground a drone fleet but not severe enough to completely eradicate roads?

        Just a thought.

        • Um, it rains here. We have lightning. We have fog. Sometimes we go weeks without seeing the sun.

          Don't be taken in by the pretty pictures from our two months of summer sunshine.

    • First, there will probably always be some backup land transport capacity for extreme conditions. This could still allow them to keep average operating costs and response times lower than without the drones at all. Second, I'd actually expect a smaller, fully computer-controlled vehicle to be much more agile, with perhaps the sole exception of having to fly against very strong wind. Areas with periodic occurrences of problematic wind conditions ought to be monitored and mined from the long-term telemetry dat

  • by TubeSteak (669689) on Thursday August 07, 2014 @04:02PM (#47626113) Journal

    To " Why Bhutan Might Get Drone Delivery Copters Before Seattle Does" is that Seattle has basic infrastructure like roads that aren't impassible after every storm.

    Point to point drone corridors can be marked off on maps and given to pilots.
    The kind of delivery that people would want in Seattle involves a burrito delivered to their front door.
    These are not the same types of delivery patterns or reasons.

    • Why would we want door to door delivery of burritos? There's a food truck down the block.

      • by Obfuscant (592200)

        Why would we want door to door delivery of burritos? There's a food truck down the block.

        Because it is all the way down the block. The same reason that people order stuff from Amazon that they could get by walking down the block to the store. And ask the people who want Amazon delivery of food because going to the local grocery store is too hard.

        I can imagine a country that has a poor system of roads and less commercial infrastructure might need a cheaper delivery system just for critical items, and it won't just be that they're lazy folk who want what they want when they want it without any

  • does anyone rah-rahing this have ANY flight experience with quadcopters? It doesn't take much wind or turbulence to severely deplete batteries and reduce range. It also doesn't take much to screw up an automated flight system.

    a 3D capable single rotor helicopter with a good autopilot is a much better possibility but no one wants to talk about those-it's all quadcopter this, quadcopter that to bring in investors and eyeballs.

    If you don't need the stability for a camera platform, a quad/hex is NOT the vehicle

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Problem, those single rotor systems tend to have more delicate parts than quad-copters.

      Some quads have four props directly connected to the motors, others a simple gear box on each motor.

      Single rotor systems need to tilt the blades at high speeds, I have a friend who has a couple and the amount of work to maintain them is far more than the simpler quad-rotor designs.

      ECP

  • Couldn't this be served better with small airships? They would have greater autonomy and I don't think there would be big differences in speed.

  • as one of the big problems with transportation in Bhutan? How well do quad copters work in bad weather?

    It sounds like a solution looking for a problem.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      During the storm? Like crap. After the storm, when all the roads are washed out? Much better than road dependent vehicle.

  • Bhutan:
    One company running few drones. Low probability of collision between drones
    Mostly rural. Low probability of drone striking obstacle
    Little civil aviation. Low probability of collision.
    Sparse population. Low probability of injury if drone goes down

    Seattle
    Hundreds of companies wanting to use drones; Much higher probability of collision between drones
    Mostly urban with power line, tall buildings, radio towers, etc. Much higher probability of drone striking obstacle
    Lots of civil aviation. Much higher prob

  • by seandoyle44 (1835628) on Friday August 08, 2014 @06:53AM (#47629081)
    Bhutan is very rugged and I've been driven over roads that were washed out in rainstorms. I don't know how practical quadcopters would be but I would be interested to see how it works out.
    When I was there I saw a farm near the top of a small hill with no roads going to it. I asked - how does the farmer get their crop to market? The answer was by animals (donkeys I think). But apparently the farmers in this area had asked for a road and they probably would get one. The main limitation was how to pay for it - they didn't want to take on any foreign debt for infrastructure developments so it might take a few decades. But they wanted their independence and were willing to wait.
    It's very true (as earlier commenters mentioned) that the per capita income is low. But when I was there 8 years ago I was struck at how prosperous and healthy people seemed. If I remember correctly Bhutan was largely a barter economy until the 1950s so some of the discrepancy might be that the official statistics don't capture some elements of the economic activity. There certainly were poor areas and the Nepalese road workers seemed far poorer than the Bhutanese - but I suspect that reality is complicated here. Maybe because Bhutan was never colonized we're seeing what a culture looks like that hasn't been plundered by outsiders? I really don't know but I'd recommend anyone who wants to find out more they should just visit there :-).
    With the drones - I'd worry about noise pollution and general impracticality with the current state of quadcopters. But it might work well & I hope that their experiment goes well. When we were there my daughter was bitten by an insect and had a bad reaction - we couldn't tell if it was an infection or an allergic response. Thimphu was a day's drive away. Something like this might work & it might be more economical than building roads. I wish them good luck.
  • Yes but what happens when the Sandpeople of Bhutan start shooting the $5000 aircraft out of the sky with .20 cent bullets?

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