At the edge: the unlikely combination of drones and cars

October 29, 2021

As one of the nation’s premier testing grounds for connected vehicles of all sorts, Ottawa’s Area X.O sees both drone and connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) projects at our R&D complex – many times both at the same time. These technologies each operate at the edge of technology development, yet on first glance seem to have little else in common. It might seem a bit surprising then to discover there is a lot of product research being explored or deployed that combines drones with vehicles.

Here’s a quick survey of the many ways in which technology from drones and vehicles is being used together. While many are in the concept stage, they show the interesting ways these two advanced technologies can be mixed to get the best of both.

Updating maps

Because drones are so good at taking pictures from the sky, using drones to update navigation maps seems a natural. Apple is one company that seems to be putting this combination to the test; iPhone users who have noticed a significant improvement in Apple maps in the last several iOS iterations may have drones partially to thank.

Like many Apple “top-secret” initiatives, they haven’t published the details themselves. However, ComputerWorld discusses some insider insights that lead many to believe that Apple is using drones to update Apple maps. The drones are being used to find changes in signage, construction, and road configuration. And even if Apple isn’t doing it, using drones to capture ground images for “satellite-like” maps would be another natural capability to add to any drone-powered map-making.

Dispatching cars

Audi is using drones in a unique way – to help connect new vehicles with their owners. Cars that are fresh off the production line at the Audi Neckarsulm plant are driven into a massive production lot with thousands of other cars, making it difficult to find any one car when it’s needed.

Audi has added technology to fix this. According to ComputerWorld, “Using GPS and RFID technology, drones fly over all the site, marking the location of each vehicle.” With this mapping of each car and its precise location, employees can then quickly and easily find any particular VIN among acres of vehicles when the owner comes to pick up their vehicle.

Delivering packages

In 2013, Amazon announced their intention to one day deliver packages by drone. Almost a decade in the making, it hasn’t been a simple task, but they are making progress – it’s not science fiction any more. Assuming that drone delivery will soon be commonplace, how do cars enter the picture?

Not every package drop is close enough to a logistics hub to make drones viable. However, a combination of trucks and drones helps solve this last-mile delivery problem. In one study on drone delivery, trucks carrying several drones were algorithmically shown to minimize cost and delivery time. Acting as remotely locatable “mini-hubs”, these trucks can drive to a location that’s close enough to multiple package sites, getting parcels out quickly and efficiently.

Helping to navigate

A more future use case involves using drones to help vehicles navigate. The company Box Clever has designed a concept where a self-driving vehicle deploys a drone to allow it to see further as well as around nearby obstacles, roadside accidents, or large trucks. This information could then be used to help the vehicle avoid causing an accident or slip around troublesome congestion.

A similar use case from Mitsubishi Electric deploys a drone to scan a large parking lot from the sky to identify empty parking spots. The user can also command the drone to hover in a selected spot to reserve it, while sending navigation information to the driver so they can find the spot.

Going off-road

Drones and cars in remote situations provide a few new applications. Ford is studying how drones might be able to help off-road drivers map their surroundings. Detailed maps don’t exist for most places where roads don’t go. But having drones scout ahead, scanning the ground for terrain topography, vegetation, and waterways allows for a safer off-road experience whether for pleasure driving or delivering emergency services.

Jeep is exploring the use of drones to record a driver’s route. While this could of course be done anywhere, it makes the most sense for off-road adventures. Hovering above and behind the vehicle, the drone would capture a bird’s eye video of the car and its drive, like a selfie of a particularly interesting trip. Audi has showcased a similar idea, allowing their self-driving concept car to not only capture footage of the trip, but to light the way.

Flying taxis

Our final use case is where the drone replaces the car, providing true three-dimensional mobility. While many people’s first exposure to this concept was the personal transportation drone shown off by Bell (the helicopter company, not the telecoms one). They are far from the only company exploring big drones for moving people – many companies are exploring use cases from personal transportation to sky-taxis.

Combining drones and vehicles

What happens when you combine drones and vehicles? Apparently, a lot! There are definitely a few of these use cases we didn’t see coming. Maybe these ideas will spark a new technology collaboration of your own. And if they do, we know exactly where you’ll want to test it!

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