Motherboard: So you want to do something good with drones, for once.
Andreas Raptopoulos: Yeah, exactly, I see a lot of opportunity to do good. Our particular goal is to do transportation in places that are not easily accessible. We think we stumbled upon something that can be the next paradigm for micro-transportation. We started thinking: ‘how can we serve places that are not connected by roads?’ Say, many Subsaharan African countries, many South American countries, where you need to deliver medicine, you need to deliver vaccines, you need to move blood samples for HIV—and there’s just no road to allow you to do it reliably.
We started thinking, ‘can we use drones to help us do it?’ So we created a concept—as you know, small UAVs today are very, very capable. They move very reliably, and navigate by GPS and do missions that allow you to carry small loads. Our threshold right now is 2 kilograms, which is about 4 pounds. But the problem they have now is a battery life which doesn’t allow them to travel for long distances. So we created a system that basically allows us to counteract this disadvantage. We use small landing stations that do automatic battery swaps that allow one of those vehicles to land switch batteries and go out again.
PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Andreas Raptopoulos is the founder and CEO of Matternet, building a network of unmanned aerial vehicles to transport medicine and goods in places with poor road infrastructure.
Related: The micro-everything revolution.
Researchers at Tufts University School of Engineering have discovered a way to maintain the potency of vaccines and other drugs that otherwise require refrigeration for months and possibly years at temperatures above 110 degrees F, by stabilizing them in a silk protein made from silkworm cocoons.
“Silk protein has a unique structure and chemistry that makes it strong, resistant to moisture, stable at extreme temperatures, and biocompatible, all of which make it very useful for stabilizing antibiotics, vaccines and other drugs,” says David Kaplan, leader of the team.
The trick happens at the molecular level. Silk protein fibroin is composed of interlocked crystalline sheets with numerous tiny hydrophobic pockets. The pockets trap and immobilize bioactive molecules, protecting them for the decompositional effect of water and preventing them from unraveling. It’s like enveloping a fragile material in what’s being called “nanoscale Bubble Wrap”.
It is currently necessary to keep bioactive drugs refrigerated all the way from manufacture to use, wherever that may be on the globe. Health experts estimate that nearly half of all global vaccines are lost due to breakdowns in the “cold chain”. The potential for off-infrastructure healthcare, including in war and disaster zones where electricity is unavailable, is enormous.
These vignettes draw comparisons between software and medicine — in their dual capacities to heal and to hurt. They explore the nature of addictive technologies in relation to business, the power that software designers are presently wielding over the masses, and a new way of imagining companies: as medicine men for the species. I hope these vignettes will help to inspire the engineering community to adopt a common set of ethical principles to guide the evolution of software (which, in turn, will help to guide the evolution of our species).
Congratulations to UCLA professor Aydogan Ozcan (PopTech 2009) named one of the top mobile health innovators of 2011 by the mHealth Alliance and Rockefeller Foundation. Ozcan has discovered how to convert cellphones in microscopes by relying on shadow imaging instead of expensive optics. In time, the ability to conduct tests and detect infectious diseases by leveraging mobile technologies in resource-poor settings could transform public health.