Drones have gained a negative reputation as aggressors, due to their military use in times of conflict, but the unmanned aerial technology is earning a positive reputation from those who are receiving aid from it. Matternet, a start-up company based out of Silicon Valley, is looking to use drones for social good. The company is trying to develop a network of unmanned mini-helicopters to help transport goods to rural areas and to places that are inaccessible due to lack of developed transportation infrastructure.

The mini-helicopters are capable of flying at heights of roughly 400 feet, and can travel up to six miles in each trip it makes. Matternet lays out a three-stage project which will utilize the technological power of the drones to deliver aid. The first stage will establish stations for drones to swap out batteries along their journeys and second phase will work to establish drone helicopters with solar-powered charging capacity, allowing the drones to travel without having to stop for a charge. The final stage of Matternet’s project will create a global network of drones, allowing for large-scale coordination and transportation of goods.

The mini-helicopters are capable of carrying 4.5 pound loads. While this capacity will not for allow for heavy shipments, it will accommodate most small aid packages. The company states that “80 percent of e-commerce packages are below 2kg,” or roughly 4.5 pounds. The drones should be able to carry items such as medicines for individual or household use, which is one of the main focuses of the project’s development.

Matternet gives an example of how its technology can improve health care in developing areas. Without Matternet’s drones, a mother in rural Africa could have to put off a day’s work and travel many miles to visit a doctor and receive medicine for her daughter’s ear infection. Or, by using the new technology, the same mother could call a doctor, and the medicine that her daughter needs could be shipped to her via drone within minutes, saving time and in critical circumstances, possibly saving lives.

Developers of Matternet emphasize their innovation’s ability to quickly and cheaply transport goods. The company states that it can establish 50 base stations and build 150 drones in Lesotho for $900,000 while it would cost about $1 million to build a single one-mile, one-lane road.

Matternet’s drones were first deployed to Haiti and the Dominican Republic for humanitarian purposes last year. The company says it needs to improve navigation and battery systems in its technologies before the drones can be used on a large scale, but Matternet hopes that in the future its drones will be utilized to help create enormous positive change in the developing world.

– Jordan Kline
Sources: The National, The Guardian Matternet
Photo: Kevin Byrant

US Military Exercise to Aid Belize
A collaboration between the U.S. military and Belize will extend supplies and human capital to the country in a program called New Horizons 2013. The exercise will show the military’s capacity for nation-building efforts in construction as well as health care, with supplies slated to arrive in Belize this spring.

The program will run for 90 days and will include collaboration between medical personnel from both countries in providing care for the citizens of Belize. The U.S. and Belize are also working together on several construction assignments, including improving local school buildings. The military will use this exercise to aid Belize for valuable training in completing a deployment “from start to finish,” coordinator Chris Donovan said. Donovan also stated that these exercises provide experience for the military that can be used in a future “real-world humanitarian need or crisis-type situation.”

U.S. Air Force Captain Richard Hallon said that one of the most vital parts of the exercise is the training that military personnel receive from transporting the necessary supplies needed for the project. This builds personnel experience in preparing, storing, and transporting equipment and materials properly, which requires planning and collaborating with parties outside of the military and from within the participating states.

The New Horizons program is not new, having originated in the 1980s, and has since operated in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. This year, the military will work closely with the Belize Defence Force, who will receive, store, and guard the supplies until military personnel arrive in the spring to start the exercise. The U.S. is no stranger to the Belize Defence Force, having partnered with them often throughout the last 20 years on various emergency relief exercises and scenarios.

Christina Kindlon

Source: U.S. Dept. of State