Meet Matternet, the drone delivery startup that’s actually delivering

Courtesy of Matternet

Successful Silicon Valley drone startup Matternet doesn’t have the name-brand recognition (or deep pockets) of tech titans like Google (GOOG) or Amazon (AMZN). But while those companies have in recent months dominated the public conversation about using drones, Matternet has quietly deployed its own delivery drone technology in real-world scenarios in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach areas.

Now, Matternet is making two simultaneous and significant leaps forward. While Amazon continues to tangle with the FAA over drone regulations in the U.S., Matternet is preparing to launch a pilot program in Switzerland where it will provide drone delivery services. The startup also recently announced that it will release the first commercial version of its technology, a $5,000 transport drone called the Matternet ONE.

“From the get-go, our mission has been to figure out the technology that will let people do the transport themselves,” says Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos. The Matternet ONE is a relatively inexpensive, easy-to-use system controlled by an app that does all of the piloting and most of the mission planning itself. Packing a 3G or 4G SIM card, the drone stays connected to guidance software running in the cloud. The user simply has to tell the Matternet ONE where to go and the drone devises an appropriate route that avoids obstacles and restricted airspace. It can carry 2.2 pounds up to 12 miles on a single charge (charging stations placed along the route can extend that range).

The technology is built upon Matternet’s experience delivering diagnostic tools and medical supplies in places like Haiti, Bhutan, the Dominican Republic and Papua New Guinea. In those trials Matternet field tested its drone technology, proving that its aircraft can fly in bad weather and beyond the line of sight of its operators. It proved it was adept at retrieving medical samples and delivering medicine to places that are often inaccessible due to poor roads, bad weather or other issues.

In the coming years Matternet will target business-to-business customers, Raptopoulos says. The company will sell the Matternet ONE for $5,000 to companies that want to own and operate the vehicles themselves, but it also is experimenting with a subscription service that would essentially lease the hardware for roughly $1,000 per month per vehicle.

Matternet’s technology is designed around a somewhat different paradigm than Amazon’s or Google’s. While those companies essentially want drones to deliver products anywhere to anyone, Matternet’s vision for drone delivery—at least in the near-term—involves unmanned aircrafts making deliveries along more regular, fixed routes for cases like high-speed delivery of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals.

The company plans to launch its pilot program in July alongside Swiss WorldCargo (the freight arm of Swiss International Air Lines) and Swiss Post (Switzerland’s postal service) that will see Matternet’s drones deliver parcels in multiple areas of Switzerland. Swiss Post and Swiss WorldCargo will each get firsthand exposure to a delivery technology that is increasingly regarded as the future of lightweight transport. However, Matternet will arguably get something more important out of the deal; not only will the company get to to try out its technology in more densely-populated, developed environments, but it will have the opportunity to clarify the legal framework and commercial use of its technology.

This opportunity could be beneficial for everyone in the drone delivery game, not just Matternet. Amazon continues to complain to the FAA that it needs clearance to fly its drones beyond the line of sight of its operators in order to prove that its technology is safe. The FAA is naturally wary of letting commercial drone operators send their vehicles too far afield. It’s a chicken and egg problem that Matternet—working with more amenable Swiss regulators—is well-positioned to help solve.

“We feel like we’re on the right technology track to be able to execute on these kinds of operations with a high level of safety and we’re in a good place to show the FAA that this is safe,” Raptopoulos says. In the meantime, Matternet is working with the FAA to resolve some regulatory issues of its own regarding a proof-of-concept project that it has yet to announce, but hopes to launch in the U.S. later this year.

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