Over the last year the Ford Motor Company has filed at least seven patents for drone-related technology.
The company’s latest drone-related patent, which was published last month, is for “methods for operating drone flights over public roadways.”
The Part 107 rules don’t allow drone pilots to fly moving vehicles without special authorization. The reasoning behind this is simple—the drone could fail while in flight and fall onto a car, potentially injuring people and causing cars to crash into each other.
Ford’s patent seeks to remedy this risk by taking the following steps:
- Transmitting a safety message from the drone while it’s in flight that shares the drone’s position, trajectory, and other flight details.
- Equipping the drone with the ability to identify an “emergency condition”—i.e., to know when it might be in danger of crashing.
- Transmitting a warning message from the drone when it’s in an emergency condition.
The patent also describes a way for the drone to change its flight path to avoid hitting objects below it, including vehicles, when it encounters an emergency that may make it crash.
Technology like this has the potential to further relax Part 107 prohibitions, opening up more and more use cases for drone technology, just as we’ve already seen happen with night flying, flying over people, and BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) to some extent.
WHAT ELSE DOES FORD WANT TO DO WITH DRONES?
When you look at the patents Ford has been filing, it’s clear the company has a strong interest in the ways that drones can work together with ground-based vehicles like trucks, cars, or vans.
Delivery is one of the most obvious applications for this kind of symbiotic use of ground and air technology.
A relevant patent application from Ford describes “a collaborative system between an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and an automobile,” in which a ground-based vehicle would carry one or several drones, acting as a hub from which the drones could be deployed for last-mile delivery.
Ford has also patented technology to use drones to help first responders find a vehicle.
That patent describes a drone that lives in the trunk of the car and can be deployed in the event of an accident, helping EMS or police find it more quickly.
Another interesting use case Ford has patented is using a drone to jump start a car, which is a new one for us.
In addition to the above uses, Ford has filed patents for technology that describes a UAV sanitation system and a vehicle-mounted aerial drone container.
Of course, filing a patent doesn’t mean a company will actually build the technology. But all this paperwork from Ford does seem to indicate that it sees drones in its future, and is actively working to make that future a reality.
LANDING A DRONE ON A MOVING VEHICLE
Beyond patents for technology Ford has conducted research into actual drone operations, including landing an automated drone on a moving vehicle.
As part of this research, Ford conducted tests with Drone Delivery Canada and the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies back in 2020.
And the tests seem to have been successful. That same year, Ford released a version of the Bronco Sport that had an integrated target made to allow a drone to land on its hood.
The ability to land on a moving vehicle could be useful for enabling deliveries that use both drones and ground-based vehicles.
But it could also just be a cool feature for someone who wants to get aerial shots while driving. If a drone like Skydio’s 2+ could take off, fly autonomously while you go offroading and collect shots of your driving, and then land back on your car—well, there are definitely some people that would want to get that footage.
FORD IS ALREADY USING DRONES TO HELP MAKE CARS
It’s also worth noting that Ford is already using drones in its own operations.
At a Ford engine plant in Valencia, Spain, personnel are using drones to monitor the inventory of materials required for their manufacturing work.
The traditional method for these inventories is to have someone walk around the plant, checking to see when materials are low and then manually replacing them. Drones speed up the process, allowing for faster monitoring than a person can accomplish on foot.
Drones are being adopted for this kind of logistics work throughout warehouses, manufacturing plants, and fulfillment centers, allowing people to get the information they need to run their operations more quickly than they could otherwise.