Matternet are putting drones into the hands of people in inaccessible locations. Hear how they're connecting health, wealth and communities.

Are you looking at a good or bad drone? And if there were a definitive description, would you be able to distinguish between a good-or-bad-nearly invisible-drone at 500 feet in the air? Maybe this is just the wrong conversation to have. Because a drone is a tool, and just like any other tool it only amplifies a human action. So the conversation about ‘drones for good’ should really begin with understanding who’s controlling the vehicles as well as the system that supports them.

We founded Matternet on the premise that placing this burgeoning technology directly into the hands of people who had the greatest need would create the most profound impact.

We estimated that by doing this we could positively impact over one billion people – one seventh of the world’s population – who currently don’t have access to all-season roads. Most developing nations find it difficult or nearly impossible to find the necessary investment to build and maintain road infrastructure.

So without finding an affordable alternative, those one billion people are placed into abject poverty, with little or no access to adequate healthcare, remaining unable to contribute to, or benefit from local and global trade.

In early 2011 we designed a simple system of autonomous flying vehicles, pre-designated landing stations and software that would be able to cost effectively transport matter to where need exists rather than to where roads end.

Since then – working with our partners – we’ve run a series of pilot programs in Haiti and the Dominican Republic to test the transportation of medical diagnostic samples from remote clinics to central hospitals where treatment can be more easily assessed.

Last month Matternet was invited to Bhutan by the World Health Organization to lay the foundations for a network to support Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay’s dream of creating an advanced telemedicine system to serve the people of Bhutan. Bhutan has only 0.3 physicians per 1,000 people (according to World Bank data). And with only 31 hospitals, 178 basic health unit clinics and 654 outreach clinics serving a population of over 700,000, the problem for many Bhutanese people is access. So for the pilot project, Matternet used autonomous flying robots to connect the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, with three small rural healthcare units.

To date Matternet has flown over 100 missions, in five countries, at altitudes ranging from one to 3300 meters, in high winds and rain, transporting goods from local hospitals to remote clinics. And from everything we’ve learnt through planning and implementing these pilot programs it’s clear to us that the vehicles that gain the greatest trust within a community are those that the community has greatest access to and control over. Our product has been designed ground-up to be owned and run by the communities it serves, and to be navigated by people who have little experience in piloting aerial vehicles.

By establishing routes between clinics and local hospitals (the hub and spoke), we are also able to envision a cost-effective solution for transportation between communities (spoke to spoke), which, of course, would fuel local trade. And because Matternet is innately entrepreneurial we recognize and support the entrepreneurial aspirations of the communities and organizations we serve. By enabling our product to become an extension of human intent regardless of skill or aptitude, we’re establishing a network that will generate wealth and value for the end user, the community, their partners and society as a whole.

We believe that the business of building flying robots is at an inflection point. We believe it’s moving beyond the domain of the military, the hobbyist or enthusiasts to becoming a viable solution to the extreme needs of transportation, creating a new paradigm. Of course ‘doing good’ has only ever been defined by the clarity of intention and outcome of actions of those in control. By placing tools directly in to the hands of those in need we take our best first step toward 'drones for good'.

As this is being written, Matternet is getting ready to go to Papua New Guinea to work alongside the amazing people at Médecins Sans Frontières.

Marc Shillum is the Chief Experience Office of Matternet and works with the team to make flying vehicles simple, safe and easy to use. He has held leadership positions in many of the world’s best innovation, design and marketing organizations and has been extensively awarded as a designer, writer and strategist. You can follow him and Matternet on Twitter: @threepress and @matternet.

– This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

We’ll be sharing lots of stories from people and organisations using drones for good over the next couple of weeks. Check out our homepage, 'In focus: Drones for good'.

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