Up in the Air: Invisible highways and drones

How UAVs are changing how we receive our medicine.

Spencer Emmerson, Junior Staff Writer

A doctor once said, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

The year was 1985, and the doctor was Emmett Brown from the science fiction classic Back to the Future. The “where” that Dr. Brown was referring to was the future and, as it turns out, the future he was speaking of has become our present. Maybe not the time-traveling-Delorean present, but recent advancements in technology have certainly allowed us to solve problems that three decades ago would have seemed unfathomable.

Drones, which are also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are aircraft that don’t have pilots and are instead controlled via a remote control or autonomously by computers in the vehicle—the latter an idea played out in countless science fiction tales, usually to disastrous effects. Essentially, drones are aircraft that can fly without anyone being physically inside.

The use of drones has grown in recent years, with many reports of drones being used in military attacks—often in developing countries. In fact, this December, it was reported that a drone strike in southern Yemen killed three Al-Qaeda suspects.

As a result, there tend to be negative connotations associated with drones both within media coverage of real-world situations, such as the December Yemen strike, and Hollywood’s depiction of ‘good drones gone bad’.

However, there are a few companies that haven’t ‘gone to the dark side’ and still view drones as having the potential to positively affect the world. Once such company is Matternet.

Matternet is a Palo Alto startup with aspirations of building invisible highways that would allow drones to deliver medicine in the developing world and above congested streets in major cities. According to the company’s vision statement, Matternet is dedicated to bringing the “next-generation transportation system” to the world—one with a low-cost, low energy, and a low ecological footprint.

That may sound like a bit of science fiction, but in reality the technology is now available and the need for drones delivering medicine is real.  Currently, there are over one billion people, which equals approximately one-seventh of the world’s population, who must deal with inadequate or nonexistent roads.Going about it the old fashion way—building a competent infrastructure, for example—isn’t possible in many of these locations for several reasons.

First, the building of a road system that would connect these populations together would take decades and dollars to create. Second, with the current state of global discourse focusing on curbing our planet’s ecological footprint, many global leaders wouldn’t allow the construction of large road systems. Working with these two drawbacks in mind, Matternet is attempting to help countries and their populations overcome several roadblocks.

“It will take fifty years for some countries to build the necessary road systems,” said Matternet CEO, Andreas Raptopoulos, in a TEDTalk this past June. “Can we create a system using today’s most advanced technologies that can allow these parts of the world to leapfrog in the same way they’ve [used] telephony?”

Remember being stuck in traffic and having no means of contacting your family to tell them you would be late? Advancements in telecommunications have not only made that particular problem a thing of the past, but have also allowed us to connect with others and information like never before. Think about it: from the comfort of your office chair you can now gather information regarding the latest local flu outbreak and the necessary steps you should take to protect yourself from it.

With that being said, advancements in technology can both solve current problems and illuminate others. For example, there are places around the world that are privy to the same information thanks to telecommunication, but don’t have the necessary means to access a solution to combat a simple flu bug.

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