The M2 development process had started before anyone knew it started.The morning after shipping three M1's to Switzerland for a pilot with Swiss post and SwissAir, I went to my local coffee place to start working. I spilled every insight I had and started criticizing everything.
I needed to fundamentally decide what is worth keeping (IE the start of a design DNA), and what needs to be better. It was an interesting few months. While I was busy criticizing my own design other people were just in the phase of falling in love with it.People were angrily asking me "when will you be satisfied?"
After long lasting discussions, and foreseeing new requirements from what was then a new and secretive partnership with Mercedes Benz, I decided to start the prototyping process of M2. I knew that M1's architecture would limit us and we need a new vehicle to fulfill our new technological needs.
Since M2 is still in use in Matternet, I will not be able to share many details about it as I did with M1.
1.DNA- It was pretty clear from the start that the strongest features of M1 were the component architecture and what it allowed us to achieve (payload visibility, operation flexibility, center of gravity etc.)Along with the basic structure, I decided to stick to the arc and the white nonmechanical look of the vehicle.
2. Assembly and maintenance- Trying to minimize assembly time while not compromising reliability was a major guideline in M2.
3. Platform flexibility- M2 would allow us to have more freedom to iterate on internal components.
At that point in Matternet, we still did not have mechanical engineering abilities, so I had to rely on fast iterations, prototyping, and common sense.
In 2015, the vans division of Mercedes-Benz(MB) approached Matternet with the need of a drone that will be able to land precisely on a van roof, change a battery and payload for E-commerce use cases. Later in the process, we understood that MB contacted us after seeing the M1 launch and liking our holistic approach to drones for transportation. At that time, MB developed a concept van that will overcome the challenges and cost of the last mile delivery while integrating two methods of transportation.
For us, it was a compliment that a great company like MB chosen us as partners. For M2 it meant that it needed to have many more features :) The biggest leap that M2 had to go through features-wise was to precision land on a van roof in a reliable way and have the ability to lock and release a payload and battery. While most of the team was still in Switzerland, I decided to hack an M1 and allow it to land precisely, and autonomously drop a payload.
The chosen M1 was Charles, and with the help of Derek (software) and Nathan (16 year old intern) we managed to integrate these features for a proof of concept that we presented to MB in 2 weeks :)
Some of the technologies that were integrated in the first proof of concept are still in use today and have been refined, made to be more reliable and developed to be part of a robust and redundant system.
For the autonomous lock and release of a payload and battery in M2, I had to lead a very tight scheduled project. Constraints were very harsh and involved weight limits, volume,reliability, system integration and of course all in a 6 week development timeline.
One of the biggest developments in M2 was the fact that for the first time, the drone will have a dedicated place to land on. Landing and taking off are among the crucial phases of every flight and the system had to overcome many challenges like wind gusts.
We started with a blank sheet of paper and went through many prototypes. We used wood, composites and eventually Aluminum to prototype the pad. One of the biggest constraints was to keep the whole object very thin (70mm) since we could not take critical volume from the van interior.
Leading this project was a great experience, and I find it very satisfying that precision landing, centering and locking a vehicle are taken for granted today.
Two of these pads were eventually integrated on the MB vision van and performed flawlessly in demos in the IAA.
As part of the agreement we let MB to style their own fairings around our M2 vehicle. I was only in charge of the CAD surfacing in this exercise.
App mock ups
Since Matternets early days we are controlling every flight using a mobile App. The App is the "window" to our service and has a very important role in our eco-system. The App allows anyone, even the most non technological person, to send and receive a package via a drone. Parallel to all the hardware development, Marc Shillum and I came up with a digital interface for the system.
It was a great experience to finally design a holistic system, physical and digital under one design ethos and common design guidelines. Marc is a great designer and collaborator and I mostly appreciate his dissatisfaction whenever he thought that we can reach a higher level of design.
Midway in the M2 development process we were very lucky to have mechanical engineering help by some very talented engineers that joined the team. Today it is very fulfilling to see how we operate as one organic unit and I am personally trying every day to blur the boundaries between design and engineering towards one strong team that seeks the most honest path towards the best product. It is great to work with engineers that get design, know what it takes and are not afraid of hard work and challenges. Our product is much better since they joined and is going to get even better:)