Ford patents drone that acts as autonomous car lookout

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. thinks the driverless cars of tomorrow could come with their own drones.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office published a Ford patent application for a drone deployment system that would work with autonomous vehicles to serve as the car’s “eyes” by flying ahead and mapping its surroundings. Passengers would use the car’s infotainment or navigation systems to control the drone as an aerial sensor.

“The drone device is introduced to the vehicle system in order to extend the range at which the vehicle is about to obtain information on its surroundings beyond the range of any one or more sensors, visual systems and/or communications interfaces that may be onboard the vehicle,” the patent says.

The patent also allows for the drone to accomplish delivery of items to and from the vehicle. In addition to a quad-copter or other flying device, the drone could be “a terrestrial model capable of land travel or a marine model capable of traveling on top or under water.”

Just because Ford has the patent for the technology doesn’t mean the system will ever be produced.

“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.”

This isn’t the first case of Ford dabbling with drones.

At January’s CES technology trade show in Las Vegas, the automaker issued a developer challenge with drone-maker DJI. The hope is that developers will use Ford’s Sync infotainment system to come up with a system for the United Nations Development Program to inspect emergency zones inaccessible to regular vehicles.

The drones, which would be docked in the bed of F-150 pickups, would be deployed during a disaster like an earthquake or tsunami to survey and map the affected areas.

“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 in January.

On July 16, the field of developers will be whittled down to 10 finalists from 25 teams. Winners will be announced in August in California, with the winning team receiving $100,000.

Other groups are exploring drone applications, too. Wayne State University students, in partnership with developer Skypersonic LLC, are working on a drone-car prototype that could communicate with each other to show camera images from the drone on an infotainment screen or continuously follow around a vehicle for a bird’s-eye view of vehicle’s surroundings.