Matternet has been working on a system to use drones to be able to automatically deliver packages by air. They’ve been at it a while, and were the first company I heard of many years ago that was looking into automated drone deliveries. With their new Matternet Station it seems that have finished the final piece of the technological puzzle to make their drone delivery system work, and may be showing that the robotic future will require even fewer human employees than is being advertised.
The Matternet Station occupies a small footprint of approximately 2 square meters and can be installed at ground or rooftop locations. It is equipped with technology that guides the Matternet M2 Drone to precision landing on the Station’s platform. After landing, the Station locks the drone in place and automatically swaps its battery and payload.
What’s really important about Matternet Station is that the entire loading, unloading, and battery swap process is automatic with no need for human interaction. To be clear this is one ROBOT servicing another ROBOT. So much of what we hear about the robotic future is how humans and robots will end up working side by side. Robots will take the repetitive tasks, but then humans will do all of the tiddly things to keep the operation running. Right now the focus on technology seems to be on AI and Machine Learning, but I’d argue that robotic cooperation is a much more significant game changer. If you can have one robot service another, then why not add another robot to the mix. The drone is supplied by the Station. Then have the Station be able to do self tests of the batteries and if one fails use another robot to swap the inventory.
Imagine in a few years a drone lands on a Station. The Station does a visual check of the drone, notices a chipped rotor and then calls in a rotor swapping robot. In the tech world there are levels of “serviceability”. When you say something is “user serviceable” that means the average user can do the repair. Think about swapping the batteries in your TV remote control. Then there’s professionally serviceable parts such as LCD screens in most laptops. It’s above what an average user would want to get into, but as long as you know what an inverter is, and how to unscrew the frame a technician should be able to repair the screen. Past the you get into the world of Apple and higher end electronics where components can be repaired, but you need special equipment and training. The chips on the motherboard can be replaced, but you need a heat gun, and know what you’re doing. These are generally “manufacturer serviceable” parts.
The important thing to realize about these levels of serviceability is that they are 100% engineered to be how they are. Just look at the hate Apple now gets because average people can no longer swap batteries. Whether a battery is soldered in place, or there’s a little flap to lift to get to it is an engineering decision. Now think about if you take those design decisions and extend them to a level of Robot Serviceable parts. If a robot can swap a battery, then it should be able to swap a rotor. If you can get a robot to swap a rotor it seems you should be able to design the sensors on a drone in such a way that robots could swap them if they become damaged. Imagine designing the parts on a drone in such a way that a robot will be able to automatically be able to repair it. Just as Torx screws are used to keep average users from opening many electronics maybe there is a specific screw design that will work best for robot repair. If robots will repair other robots the idea of making things like sensors and compute much more modular may be the way forward in design. Instead of tightly packed together components that are soldered together have the parts be more swappable like a modern thumb drive.
The Matternet Station on it’s own seems interesting, and for blood and medicine delivery really seems like a game changing device. Why I find it exciting and concerning though is what it means for where technology is going. Humans have a nasty habit of thinking the story ends whenever it works best for them. Politicians and thought leaders can easily spew that with all of these robots that the jobs that are lost will be made up for with the jobs created by servicing the robots. Have you noticed anyone taking the minuscule step past that and asking what happens when robots service robots?
5000 autonomous vehicles serviced by 100 robots supplied by 10 3D printers and 2 technicians in the back with multimeters troubleshooting the few repairs robots can’t handle….