A rev­o­lu­tion­ary drone-based de­liv­ery net­work is be­ing tested—in Bhutan

Bhutan Times - - Home - By Devjyot

Ghoshal and Daniel A. Me­d­ina

It’s one of the world’s first drone-based de­liv­ery net­works, but it’s not in the Sil­i­con Val­ley. It’s in Shangri-la.

A Sil­i­con Val­ley startup is pi­lot­ing a low-cost drone-based de­liv­ery project in the re­mote Hi­malayan na­tion of Bhutan that could save lives in far-flung ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties—and per­haps pioneer the sys­tem glob­ally.

Bhutan has only 0.3 physi­cians per 1,000 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank data, which is lower than larger re­gional coun­tries like In­dia, Pak­istan and Bangladesh. But the big­ger prob­lem for many Bhutanese is ac­cess.

With 31 hos­pi­tals, 178 ba­sic health unit clin­ics and 654 outreach clin­ics (as of 2011) serv­ing a pop­u­la­tion of over 700,000, the chal­lenge is to reach re­mote moun­tain com­mu­ni­ties on time and af­ford­ably.

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.

With funds from in­vestors like An­dreessen Horowitz, Scott and Cyan Ban­is­ter and Win­klevoss Cap­i­tal, Mat­ter­net has spent the past cou­ple of years con­duct­ing field tests in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic and Haiti.

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.

“It’s not just about the cost, but the fea­si­bil­ity,” says Mat­ter­net’s chief reg­u­la­tory and strat­egy of­fi­cer Paola San­tana, who reck­ons that cre­at­ing a sim­i­lar land-based de­liv­ery sys­tem in Bhutan would be much more ex­pen­sive and dif­fi­cult to track.

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

Bhutan, of­ten com­pared to the myth­i­cal Shangri-la of Joseph Con­rad’s ‘Lost Hori­zon,’ is vir­tu­ally all moun­tain. In the coun­try’s north, the air is thin and the alti­tude makes it dif­fi­cult for fly­ing. In the hu­mid, sub­trop­i­cal south, mon­soons bring up to 25 feet of rain per year.

The con­di­tions are less than ideal for small drones, but San­tana tells Quartz that they have func­tioned with­out any glitches so far. (There hasn’t been any test­ing in heavy rains.)

Nonethe­less, if pilot projects such as these work out, they could po­ten­tially lead to a mas­sive new mar­ket for drone-based ap­pli­ca­tions.

“Es­sen­tially, we see a mar­ket of civil govern­ment and com­mer­cial in terms $5.4 bil­lion over the next decade,” says Phil Fin­negan, an an­a­lyst at the Teal Group, a US-based firm that an­a­lyzes the aero­space in­dus­try. “It’s quite promis­ing, in a lot of ar­eas, not only in hu­man­i­tar­ian ar­eas but also in things like agri­cul­ture for UAVs to de­velop their ca­pa­bil­i­ties.”

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