An Internet of drones. That is what John Robb, inventor and military strategist, proposes to tackle the problems related to last mile delivery of goods. In rough terrain with few or no roads, drones can be deployed to deliver goods to dispersed groups of people. While in urban areas traffic congestion can be relieved by shifting local pickup and delivery from ground to air.
Robb floats the idea of a DroneNet in a series of blog posts. The drone network operates very much like the Internet. Literally, a packet switching network with landing pads as network nodes over which each packet is routed independently. The landing pads double function as charging stations and switches.
Transport by air does not need to be expensive. A $400 quad rotor can carry 1 kilogram over a distance of 8 to 10 miles. The quad delivers the packet to a network node and hands it over to another drone. Each hop will be cost about 25 dollar cents, Robb calculates, a dollar for 40 miles of transportation.
The distributed network can grow quickly if it is set up as an open platform. When the network is built on open protocols, languages and systems anybody with a drone or a landing pad can join. Robb describes the basic standards needed for a DroneNet:
‘Hardware standards. Simple rules for drone weight, dimensions, service ceiling, and speed. Simple rules for battery swap and recharging (from battery type, dimension, etc.). Simple rules for package containers. Simple rules for the dimensions and capabilities of landing pads.
‘Network standards. Decentralized database and transaction system for coordinating the network. Rules for announcing a landing pad (information from GPS location and services provided) to the network. Rules for announcing a drone to the network (from altitude to speed to direction to destination). Cargo announcement to the network, weight, and routing (think: DNS routing). A simple system for allocating costs and benefits (a commercial overlay). This commercial system should handle everything from the costs of recharging a drone and/or swapping a battery to drone use.’
The idea of a delivery system of networked drones is already put in practice by the 2011 startup Matternet. Matternet sprung from a humanitarian effort to bring means of transport to the one billion people in the world who do not have access to all-season roads. Its focus is on extreme rural areas and getting goods to and from remote settlements.
People in underprivileged regions are increasingly getting connected to the Internet by way of mobile phones. It gives them access to the global information network but not to the goods that go with it. So they may learn from a doctor they need a particular medicine but without roads, they have no means of getting them delivered. In comes Matternet, a network of solar powered drones that can make the delivery by air.
Matternet’s co-founder Andreas Raptopoulos held a presentation [see video below] at Solve For X, Google’s forum for finding technology-based solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. He explains that at the current rate, building an African road infrastructure equal to those in developed regions would take about 50 years. Instead of going through the same developmental steps as developed countries, Africa can leapfrog ahead by shifting to drone technology. Establishing a logistics system in less time and for less money. A mini Matternet covering 138 square kilometers costs little under a million dollars. That same amount of money buys 2 kilometers of road.
But Matternet, says John Robb, has one flaw that will get in the way of expansive growth: it is a closed network.
‘The real breakthrough’, says Robb, ‘is in building an open network. A drone network that could be built through decentralized action/investment.
‘It’s a system that will explode in a way that is very similar to the way the Internet grew up — where connections were bought by individuals and installed one modem and IP address at a time, and where the early providers are local geeks with shelves full of modems and an expensive T-1 lines.’