Why Drones and Self-Driving Cars Make a Great Match
Drones and self-driving cars are two of the hottest topics in technology, and in some ways are made for each other. While autonomous cars can “see” all around them, their sensors are limited to a certain distance, whereas drones can scout obstacles and trouble far ahead.
This is why Ford is looking into pairing drones with autonomous cars, and why the automaker recently filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a drone deployment system that will “extend the range at which the vehicle is about to obtain information on its surroundings.”
According to the patent, occupants of a self-driving vehicle would use its infotainment or navigation system to control the drone and have it function as an external aerial sensor. And the concept is not restricted to land and air use since the drone could be “a terrestrial model capable of land travel or a marine model capable of traveling on top or under water,” the patent says.
Trucks and Drones Deliver
Ford isn’t the first to pair drones with cars. Nor is it the first time the automaker has announced a drone-vehicle combination. At CES 2016, Ford debuted a developer challenge in conjunction with the United Nations Development Program and drone maker DJI. The goal of the challenge is to assist emergency aid workers by launching drones from the bed of an F-150 pickup to inspect disaster areas inaccessible to vehicles.
“There is an opportunity to make a big difference with vehicles and drones working together for a common good,” Ken Washington, Ford vice president of Research and Advanced Engineering, said at CES. But Ford was quick to quell any speculation of a companion drone coming with an F-150 pickup anytime soon.
“As a technology leader, we submit patents on innovative ideas as a normal course of business,” a Ford spokesman said in a statement. “Patent applications are intended to protect new ideas but aren’t necessarily an indication of new business or product plans.”
Other are also exploring drone-vehicle applications, whether as part of a publicity stunt or more practical applications. Two years ago, Renault showed a conceptthat used a companion drone to scout traffic ahead, while at CES this yearRinspeed showed a similar concept with a BMW i8. Just this week, UPS announced the $800,000 funding of a partnership with medical delivery drone maker Zipline and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance “to explore using drones to transform the way life-saving medicines like blood and vaccines are delivered across the world.”
About 20 students at Ford’s Detroit neighbor, Wayne State University, have come closest to duplicating the concept of the automaker’s patent app. Working with drone maker Skypersonic LLC, the students developed a prototype that can show images from a drone’s camera on a car’s in-dash screen.
“We are mainly trying to design an autonomous system for the drone to come inside the car for the driver, so that whenever he wants it, with the click of a button, he can give instructions just sitting in the car,” Amey Chodankar, a Wayne State graduate student told The Detroit News.
Of course, one of the most obvious use cases for pairing drones and vehicles is for deliveries. In addition to well-known companies like Amazon and UPS exploring pairing drones with delivery vehicles, a company called Workhorse, which makes electric delivery vehicles, received permission from the FAA last year to test drone package deliveries in Ohio.
But it sounds like Ford’s patent and the Wayne State concept could also work the other way around and deliver goods to a car—giving fast food a whole new meaning.