Ford Thinks Drones Can Supplement Failed Autonomous Car Sensors

A drone could fly to your autonomous car and use its sensors to fill in for yours if they fail.

Drone in Flight
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

If snow and ice from a recent nor'easter obscure your car's sensors, you might lose your dynamic cruise control or automatic parking capability. No big deal. But autonomous cars will rely on these sensors extensively to know what's on and around the road ahead, and a failure will be a big deal. Ford has applied for a patent on a unique way around this situation: A drone that would temporarily supplement your car's sensors.

Ford

The drone would land on your car, then use its sensors to supplement your own.

In the event of a sensor failure, your fully autonomous car would recognize the fault, then use its vehicle-to-vehicle network to hail one of these specialized drones. It would fly to your location, land on top of your car, and interface its own sensors with your car, temporarily replacing the failed built-in system. Then, together, they would direct the car to a nearby repair center where the problem could be fixed, and the drone would return to its home base.

This sounds like something out of science fiction, but the technology would not be much of a stretch from what is already planned. Drones already need their own sensors to operate autonomously, so if programmed correctly it would be no big deal to let a car borrow its sensor array for a while.

In a practical sense, we're still far away from this point. Just because Ford wants to patent the idea doesn't mean it will ever be feasible to implement it. FAA regulations restricting autonomous drones in certain areas may shoot this idea out of the sky, and only densely populated areas like cities would be practical for this plan. There are also security considerations, to ensure that a malicious drone couldn't hijack your car.

Still, the beauty of science fiction is that it asks the question, "what if?" Sometimes the answer is later considered ridiculous, like Jules Verne sending astronauts to the moon by shooting them out of a really big gun. Other times, something like Star Trek's PADDs inspire modern day tablets, or Knight Rider's self-driving car inspires a real-life version, even if Waymo's Chrysler Pacificas aren't as cool as a 1982 Pontiac Trans Am. Only time will tell which category Ford's idea will fall into.