Drones – The Birth of a New Transportation Mode

When it comes to moving goods from one place to another, you have various transportation options: you can transport products by airplane, train, truck, or ship. You can also transport them by bicycle, horse, or donkey, or you can walk them over yourself.

New technological advancements in each of these modes will continue to make them faster, cheaper, and smarter in the years ahead (except, maybe, for the horse and donkey). Just look at the rise of driverless cars, for example. There’s been a lot of buzz about this technology the past couple of years, with companies like Google, Volvo, and Ford (among many others) making news in this area. In a speech last year at the 2012 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr. predicted that fully autonomous cars will hit the road by 2025.

But there lies the problem, or at least the limitation with driverless cars. What if you live in a place where there are no roads? Or the roads are flooded or impassable half the time? Or the roads are so congested with traffic, you’re better off walking?

Enter the birth of a new transportation mode: drones.

While drones (also called unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aerial systems) are best known for their military applications and villainous roles in Hollywood movies, the technology has advanced so much in recent years, that you can buy a drone for $500 to $1,000 today, with many of the advanced capabilities found in military models (minus the weapons, of course).

I first read about this trend last July in a Wired article titled “Here Come the Drones” by Chris Anderson, who started the online community DIY Drones and co-founded 3D Robotics. Here is an excerpt from the article that captures the essence of this trend:

All told, there are probably around 1,000 new personal drones that take to the sky every month…And the personal drone industry is growing much faster [than the military one].

Why? The reason is the same as with every other digital technology: a Moore’s-law-style pace where performance regularly doubles while size and price plummet. In fact, the Moore’s law of drone technology is currently accelerating, thanks to the smartphone industry, which relies on the same components — sensors, optics, batteries, and embedded processors — all of them growing smaller and faster each year. Just as the 1970s saw the birth and rise of the personal computer, this decade will see the ascendance of the personal drone. We are entering the Drone Age.

What exactly is a drone? I like Anderson’s definition: “Aircraft that have the capability of autonomous flight, which means they can follow a mission from point to point (typically guided by GPS, but soon this will also be possible through vision and other sensors)…Usually drones carry some sort of payload, which at a bare minimum includes cameras or other sensors as well as some method to transmit data wirelessly back to a base.”

The buzz around drones has intensified in recent months. The FAA Reauthorization bill that was signed into law last year directs the FAA to develop regulations for the testing and licensing of commercial drones by 2015. Meanwhile, PBS aired a NOVA episode last month on drones titled “Rise of the Drones” (the segment beginning at 38:55 is particularly interesting), and this week TIME Magazine published a cover story with the same title. I encourage you to read and watch all of these sources to get the full picture of what’s happening with this technology.

So, how might drones transform supply chain and logistics processes? In a blog posting earlier this week, Kevin O’Meara (former logistics executive at Whirlpool, now with Breakthrough Fuel) wrote that drones “could revolutionize air freight delivery in the package space,” particularly in servicing small, less-densely populated areas. The most visionary idea I’ve seen, however, comes from Matternet, which aims to “do for physical transportation what the Internet did for the flow of information.”

Watch this short video for a great overview of the transportation problem Matternet is trying to solve with its proposed network of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), ground stations, and operating system.

In the video, Matternet founder and CEO Andreas Raptopoulos describes the concept as follows:

The idea behind the Matternet is to set up a network for the transportation of physical goods that is based on the ideas of the Internet.

The enabling technology is the UAVs. We want to harness all of the great work that has been happening in academia in the open source community and build a platform that can allow us to do point-to-point delivery, decentralized peer-to-peer just like the Internet.

The second vital ingredient of the network is the automated ground stations we use. These are point stations on the ground that the UAVs fly in and out of in order to swap batteries and fly further or exchange loads.

The third [component] is the OS [operating system] that runs the whole network, that optimizes routes, optimizes the flow of vehicles and goods through the system. It optimizes for weather conditions and guarantees the security of the system so we can guarantee to the authorities that it’s not being used for illegal purposes.

The company’s primary focus is on deploying this network in rural areas of developing countries, where just like mobile technologies leapfrogged the need to build landlines, drone technology can potentially leapfrog (or at least minimize) the need to build roads, saving countries a ton of money in the process. But Matternet also sees an opportunity for deploying a drone network at the opposite end of the spectrum: in Mega Cities with highly-dense populations and gridlocked roadways.

The bottom line: I believe we’re witnessing the birth of a new transportation mode, one that will take many years to develop and mature (but will probably happen sooner than we think), and one that will make our current discussions about driverless cars and same-day delivery sound silly in retrospect. Aside from 3D printing and teleportation (if it ever happens), drones have the greatest potential to truly transform the way we transport goods.