A consortium led by Boeing affiliate HorizonX Ventures has invested US$16 million in California-based drone pioneer Matternet. Both sides expect to enjoy considerable benefits through
their upcoming partnership, aimed at offering the market new modes of reliable, efficient cargo air transportation.
We spoke with Oliver Evans, head of global business development at Matternet about the foreseeable consequences of this tie up.
Mr Evans, Matternet has just raised substantial funds for pushing ahead with the company’s autonomous urban drones program. Which technological and commercial advantages do you expect
Matternet will achieve through this deal?
Boeing is a fantastic partner for Matternet: besides their phenomenal pedigree as a groundbreaking and later globally dominating enterprise, we see great advantages in their vast experience and expertise as a manufacturer. As we embark upon our commercial journey, we will migrate away from the current small-scale assembly done in our own premises in an industrial park in Menlo Park (CA) towards industrial production, and the advice and guidance we can obtain from partners like Boeing, Daimler or Sony is invaluable. Furthermore, we now have an array of strategic partners in key sectors (Boeing - aviation; Daimler - automotive; Sony - sensors and electronics; Swiss Post - logistics) which all immensely strengthen the pool of expertise upon which we can draw. Last but not least of course we can draw upon their networks of clients and partners in different fields all around the world.
As part of the program, Matternet will work with hospitals, universities and transportation agencies in California and North Carolina to facilitate on-demand delivery of medical supplies and samples. Please specify.
We have been selected to participate in the IPP program (Integration Pilot Program) alongside our partners in the healthcare industry (University of California San Diego Health, and Wakemed Health - North Carolina). The specifics of the operations and pilot are currently being worked out with these partners, and the many other stakeholders involved in each location (city and state administration, other partners and of course the FAA). However, our partners have very much in mind the operating system we have developed and implemented amongst others in Switzerland: drone, logistics stations, landing pads. As in Switzerland, Matternet have the ability to monitor every detail of the operations through local observers as well as remotely using the constant stream of data points uploaded into the cloud by the vehicles. The partners are aiming for an earliest possible start but these are complex and sensitive projects that require intensive preparation with various parties including local police etc. to ensure safety, understanding and support from the staff of the involved companies as well as any members of the public going about their activities in the vicinity.
According to MD Brian Schettler of Boeing HorizonX Ventures a cornerstone of the program is to develop a safe, global autonomous air mobility system, becoming a near-term reality. Besides the U.S., which other markets for operating drones is Matternet targeting next and how will the company’s going global be financed within the next couple of years?
Our aim is to develop a platform for the safe operation of drones and their integration into the broader air navigation systems to ensure segregation of vehicles at all times and the intelligent use of available space and communication channels, thus opening up countless new and efficient options for logistics.
Matternet is currently focusing business development resources on a limited number of attractive markets globally (USA of course, but also Switzerland and neighbouring countries - Germany, France; Singapore, Japan and the Emirates) because each country has its own regulatory framework and obtaining permits is very time - and resource - intensive. However, our ambition is global and partners well-connected to their country’s authorities are welcome.
It is impossible to mention any figures with regard to required funding as the industry and landscape of opportunity is evolving very rapidly but clearly, we need substantial funds to invest both in the technology and in the manufacturing and operations.
Boeing together with Swiss Post, Sony Innovation Fund and Levitate Capital invested US$16 mn in Matternet. How many of the Matternet shares did this consortium acquires through their cash
This is not disclosed but is indeed the biggest raise in the history of Matternet, which includes a substantial investment in 2016 by Daimler.
While Matternet can widen its business thanks to additional funds, it would be interesting to know how the U.S. planemaker will benefit from this collaboration.
We believe that an established and leading planemaker benefits by participating in a wholly new and exciting field of airborne transportation. Furthermore, the capabilities we are developing in the area of automation and remote monitoring are also highly relevant in the wider aviation context. It is possible to envisage a robust platform for autonomous vehicles like Matternet’s being used for a wide range of vehicles including drones able to transport different shapes or weights of loads than the 2kg box currently in use by Matternet. Last but not least it is very important for large established players like Boeing to practice innovation and very short cycle decision-making characteristic of startups.
Finally, what's the status of the Switzerland project Matternet and Swiss Post started a year ago?
In Switzerland Matternet and their partners Swiss Post now have one fully established commercial network for the EOC Hospital company (the only one in the world authorized for operations over a city). We have 2 active pilots (in Bern with Insel Hospital and in Zurich with the ZLZ laboratory company) which will shortly be evaluated for permanent, commercial operations. And a number of other projects for different leading healthcare clients in the same and other Swiss cities that are rapidly approaching their respective launch dates subject to the speed with which the regulators can review and grant approval which is a meticulous process that cannot be rushed in the interests of safety.
The questions were put by Heiner Siegmund