Ford Patent Details Drone-Based Autonomous Vehicle Backup

The evolution of self-driving vehicles has so far resulted in some sophisticated conceptual cars, from an autonomous Aston Martin straight out of a James Bond film to the (fake) graffiti-tagged school bus of the future.

Now it seems Ford is developing a technology for autonomous vehicles that could have come straight out of last year’s sci-fi sequel Blade Runner 2049, applying for a patent for a self-driving car that could summon a drone to the vehicle and use its sensors to fill in for the car’s if they fail.

The filing from Ford Global Technologies, a subsidiary of the automaker that manages and commercializes patents and copyrights, outlines the process by which the vehicle sends for a surrogate sensor — the drone — upon detecting a sensor failure.

After being alerted to the vehicle’s location, the drone would fly to the vehicle, receive authorization from it, identify a repair location and then help guide the vehicle to that location.

Ford developed the technology to aid vehicles that have lost one or multiple sensor — autonomous cars use short- and long-range radar, Lidar, cameras and even ultrasound technology to stay on the road, change lanes and perform other navigational operations.

In November, the company filed a patent for an off-road autonomous vehicle, with signals received from navigation systems, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) connectivity and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) connectivity.

Also listed in the filing as a form of navigation sensing was an “inertial measuring unit,” which would track the vehicle’s movement on rocky terrain and interpret it to best perform future maneuvering.

The company has invested heavily in autonomous vehicle technology and testing, recently announcing a partnership with Miami-Dade County to bring self-driving cars to the sun-drenched streets of the coastal metropolis.

In January, Ford expanded its push into the autonomous mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) space with the annoucement at CES of a partnership with online delivery service Postmates, a mobile app-based delivery platform on which customers can order any number of things.

While Ford is developing technology to help drones pilot self-driving cars, Zephyr Airworks, the New Zealand operator of the secretive company Kitty Hawk — run by Sebastian Thrun, who gave Google’s autonomous car unit its start when he served as the director of Google X — is looking to supplant autonomous vehicles altogether.

The company, funded by Google co-founder Larry Page, has designed an air taxi named Cora that can take off like a helicopter and transition to flying like a plane.

The all-electric, completely autonomous flying machine could potentially take off from a rooftop and hop across a city, acting as an air taxi that can pick up and drop off passengers when hailed.

The company, together with New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), New Zealand’s Ministry of Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority, has started trials of the air taxi as part of Cora’s official certification process.

In an email to The New York Times, the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, saidthe endeavor was “about sending the message to the world that our doors are open for people with great ideas who want to turn them into reality”.

— Nathan Eddy is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter @dropdeaded209_LR.

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