Think of it as OnStar on steroids. Automaker Ford has patented a “vehicle-integrated drone” that is programmable and can automatically deploy from cars and trucks in emergencies and fly either autonomously or under pilot control to illuminate accident scenes with lights and sirens, stream photos and video, boost emergency communication, and enhance navigation. The law enforcement applications are obvious, but so are those aimed at rural users of unimproved roadways who need to see the road ahead or who travel in areas of spotty/nonexistent cell service.
The integrated drone is just one of several drone-related technologies Ford is working on, according to a recent company publication. It is also looking at using a drone’s anti-collision lights as an I.D. and tracking solution. This patent-pending idea uses the lights to “broadcast a drone’s 10-digit code in an ASCII-encoded binary signal at a baud rate” that could be synced for consistency across the system to ensure universal compatibility.
These lights also could be used to communicate system status “with a combination of color and blinks.” The light patterns would be captured by a camera-based software app. Decoding algorithms can run on a smartphone, which would allow anyone to identify and report illegal drone operations. Field tests to date have shown the system to be accurate to within 80 feet. Ford also is developing onboard subsystems to take the place of traditional radio and ADS-B transmitters, saving expense and weight.
Ford has stood up a UAV Systems group in Palo Alto, California, that has created a “customizable development platform” that gives Ford the ability to rapidly test drones and vehicle missions and interfaces. The modular platform allows those with limited drone knowledge to test these concepts.
Ford research manager John Luo and scientist Adi Singh described the company’s drone raison d’etre, “We think many of our customers will want to use these [drone] devices as part of their lifestyle, whether to pursue hobbies or even as a tool for their business—no different than how they use an F-150 [pickup] or Transit [van] on a job site. By conducting in-house research in this emerging area while simultaneously participating in the regulatory conversation at the federal level, Ford is laying the groundwork to make sure our vehicles can deliver the right experiences to our customers as we transition to a smart world.”