If you're interested in drone deliveries, it's likely because you want your internet shopping dropped at your door within an hour of clicking "buy." And while companies like Amazon are working to make that happen, complicated logistics and thorny regulations mean it's likely to be years before you start hearing the whir of rotors on your front porch.
Yet drones are already proving their worth with more urgent, medical, missions. The latest of these comes from Silicon Valley startup Matternet, which has been testing an autonomous drone network over Switzerland, shuttling blood and other medical samples between hospitals and testing facilities.
"We have a vision of a distributed network, not hub and spoke, but true peer-to-peer," says Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos. Instead of operating from large centralized drone airports, every hospital can install its own base to keep drones running, without onsite technicians to recharge or reload them. Right now, Raptopoulos says, hospitals move those supplies using third party couriers that tend to be expensive and unreliable, or even use taxis. This promises to be a far more direct mode of transport.
To make that possible, the California company developed a drone base station that automates ground operations, to make life as easy as possible for operators. Covering roughly about 6 square feet and about 4 feet high, it fits easily in a parking lot or rooftop. To send a package, you just pop whatever needs carrying into a bright red, shoebox sized container (the only splash of color in this otherwise white, 'living in the future' base station). Once you've scanned the box with the station's built-in QR reader, an illuminated slot opens, sucks in the package, slots it into a Matternet M2 quadcopter, and sends it off into the sky.
For incoming traffic, the base station manages its own airspace with an "automated aerial deconfliction system," and implements a holding pattern for incoming drones if more than one arrives at the same time. It also broadcasts its location to help drones land in just the right spot. When a drone touches down, the base locks it into place, swaps out its depleted batteries for a charged set, and loads it with its fresh cargo.