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Why is Ford Interested in Using Drones with Driverless Cars?

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【Summary】By using a drone that can see over tall trees, large bushes and rolling hills, the vehicle could map its surroundings with greater accuracy. Ford mentioned that passengers will be able to control the quadcopter via the vessel’s infotainment or navigation components.

Original Michael Cheng    Dec 20, 2016 6:19 AM PT

Earlier this month, Ford announced revolutionary plans to utilize drones with autonomous cars. The company is currently testing a system that would offer robust aerial guidance, while being within close proximity to the vehicle.

Why would Ford propose such a system?

Company engineers confirmed that UAVs could help self-driving cars navigate rough terrain for off-road adventures. From a car's perspective on the ground, there are several obstacles that may affect its sensors. By using a drone that can see over tall trees, large bushes and rolling hills, the vehicle could map its surroundings with greater accuracy. Ford mentioned that passengers will be able to control the quadcopter via the vessel's infotainment or navigation components.

"At some point, people are going to want to take their autonomous vehicle into the woods or off road where the drone could guide them," said Alan Hall, spokesman for Ford's in house technology department.

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DJI and Ford?

The leading automaker is leveraging its partnership with top Chinese drone manufacturer DJI to streamline the development of drone mapping for driverless cars. In January, the duo launched the DJI Developer Challenge, which encouraged the use of UAVs with ground-based vessels. Initially, the technology was being built to support large-scale emergency services for first responders. With a compact drone that communicates in real-time with a car, individuals could go to disaster zones, quickly deploy the quadcopter and survey various parts of the location. Unfortunately, the proposed system is very easy to talk about – but incredibly difficult to execute. Out of ten teams that participated in the event, only one group was able to launch and retrieve a drone from a moving vehicle, i.e., a bulky Ford F-150.

"At Ford we're all about making people's lives better and when I look at this opportunity combining the work with the United Nations Development Program and DJI and leveraging our technology, it's absolutely a way for us to deliver on that," said Don Butler, Ford's Executive Director, Connected Vehicles and Services.

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Ford Driverless Patents

In 2016, Ford was awarded over 1,442 patents. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, most of the filings were for self-driving vehicular components, including one for its drone-to-car mapping system. The automaker has more patents filed this year, compared to Toyota (1,368), General Motors (1,131) and Honda (1,011). Outside of the US, Ford was granted 1,700 patents, for a combined total of 3,142.

The company's compilation of patents is filled with out-of-the-box ideas and designs. In one of the filings called "On-the-Go H2O" the car manufacturer proposed installing a water fountain next to cup holders. Developed by Ford engineers Doug Martin and John Rollinger, the smart fountain would never need to be refilled. Instead, it will trap tiny droplets of water, as it condenses inside a filter. Flipping a switch will release water into a cup through a small faucet.

Researchers got the idea from a billboard in Lima, Peru, that was promoting the life-saving technology. The business foresees this feature being very useful in remote locations without access to clean drinking water, such as deserts and mountainous regions. 

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