Silicon Valley startup pilots drone-based delivery system in Bhutan

07 Aug 2014


Matternet, a Silicon Valley startup, is piloting a low-cost drone-based delivery project in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan that, it says, could save lives in far-flung rural communities and perhaps revolutionise the future of package delivery in far-flung and inaccessible areas even in cash-strapped developing countries.

Bhutan has 31 hospitals, 178 basic health unit clinics and 654 outreach clinics that caters to a population of over 700,000 and each physician has, on an average, to serve over 3,000 people. The problem is further complicated by inaccessibility of the countrysides.

To address the challenge of reaching remote mountain communities on time and affordably, the Bhutanese government and the World Health Organization, earlier this year, roped in Matternet, a Palo Alto company that develops transportation networks using unmanned aerial vehicles to reach hard-to-access places.

Matternet, founded by designer-inventor-entreprenuer Andreas Raptopoulos and Paola Santana, a Fulbright scholar who was previously with the World Bank, has some big American names such as IronPort founders and PayPal board members Scott  Banister and his wife Cyan, co-founder and CTO Adam Pisoni, former founding members of Facebook and Yahoo Eric Kwan, musician and entrepreneur Nasir Jones, Anthony Saleh and founder and CEO of Aramex Fadi Ghandour as investors.

For Matternet, which has spent the past couple of years conducting field tests in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the project in Bhutan is the first big test for a 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 20km at a time, to and from pre-designated landing stations. The company has been able to track these flights in real-time, and aims to eventually deploy fully-automated landing stations that would replace drone batteries, giving them extended range and flight time.

The drones that Matternet uses typically cost between $2,000 and $5,000 each. This, however, may look a pittance considering the huge cost and difficulty in creating a land-based delivery system.

''It's not just about the cost, but the feasibility,'' says Matternet's chief regulatory and strategy officer Paola Santana.

For the pilot project, Matternet is using four drones to connect the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital in capital Thimphu with three small healthcare units elsewhere in Bhutan, which is virtually all mountain.

Once the pilot project becomes feasible, it could potentially lead to a massive new market for drone-based applications over the next decade, says Matternet.

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