Take that, Amazon. Swiss Post, in collaboration with Silicon Valley drone startup Matternet, is testing the Matternet ONE, a self-driving quadcopter that is purpose-built to carry cargo, unlike the adapted camera or enthusiast drones used by other test programs.
The Matternet ONE Drone is designed to carry a two-pound package for up to around six miles on a single charge. That may not sound like much, but it isn’t supposed to replace the regular parcel post.
Swiss Post sees drone deliveries as an addition to its service, although it doesn’t expect any commercial activity for at least five years. One (unlikely) scenario detailed in the press release imagines delivering emergency supplies to places cut off by a storm (the Swiss presumably can’t go for more than a few days without a fresh supply of fine chocolate).
Another more likely example is the “urgent transport of consignments with the highest priority, such as laboratory tests.”
Drones seem well-suited to this kind of point-to-point delivery. Instead of a swarm of drones leaving the post office each morning, carrying the day’s mail, imagine them replacing bicycle couriers, or delivering pharmacy prescriptions to the sick, or carrying still-hot pizza to the hungry.
The Matternet drones can fly themselves. You input the destination and the software does the rest, sending the package by the most direct route (which, if you’re flying, is pretty direct), at a height of about 160-330 feet. And unlike bike couriers or mail vans, they can self-route, avoiding other drones as they go.
There’s so much buzzing in the air around drone-delivery bots that something has to happen soon. Some of the hurdles are technological–battery life is the main one. But some are social. For instance, how will companies like Amazon stop anyone with a fishing net from scooping the drones from the sky and stealing their cargo? And what if these things crash? Almost by definition, a delivery drone will be working in built-up urban areas. The Matternet ONE has a built-in parachute, but it still has to land somewhere, and that somewhere might be a busy road, or your head.