Back in March, car manufacturer Ford announced that its drone division had put forward a suggestion to the FAA’s remote tracking & ID aviation rulemaking committee. Our first impression was ‘Hold up, Ford has a drone division?’ After that, we had a look at the specifics of the suggestion. It was interesting.
As a quick refresh, Ford’s idea was to use anti-collision lighting to flash a unique identifier from each drone (You can read more about that here). The result is the 10-digit registration number provided to each pilot by the FAA being transmitted using the anti-collision lights and received/decoded with a camera-based software application.
In the post outlining the idea, Ford claimed that the system is “zero cost” and “requires little to no modification of existing models”.
We know that proper anti-collision lighting kits (The kind you need to fly at night, for example) cost money. And they aren’t the kind of gear most pilots, recreational or otherwise, have at their disposal – as night flights are currently banned without a waiver in most countries.
Ford also suggested that members of the public could download the associated application, scan drones they see nearby and report (presumably) misbehaving pilots to the authorities. Again, interesting, but there’s something about it that feels uncomfortable. Sure, it would improve accountability. But making available that kind of app would probably only add to the state of public drone paranoia, not reduce it. Creating a culture of mass reporting isn’t the way to put peoples’ minds at ease.
Beyond those issues, the technology is certainly innovative and unique. Ford is still working on it as far as we know, so maybe this kind of system could be built into existing lights on DJI drones, for example. It could certainly provide a layer of ID capability that would be applicable in certain scenarios.
Anyway, at the time it was clear that the company was interested in pursuing drone technology in general, not just ID solutions. We haven’t heard much about those ambitions since. This is where they left us:
At Ford, we recognize that people are using drones in fascinating ways: to monitor crops in agriculture, gather information for disaster management, and in the inspection of buildings or other infrastructure. Our customers are beginning to think about drones as tools to help get their jobs done, the same way they think about their vehicles. As researchers, we were intrigued by the relationship between our vehicles and drones and how we might serve our customers in the future, so we embarked on a mission to find out more.
Now, thanks to a conversation between Adi Singh, Ford’s Principal Scientist for UAV Systems, and Ian Smith as part of the Commercial Drones FM podcast, we’ve got a bit more insight.
Ford+Drones = Flying Cars?
Don’t get too excited. The Ford drone division doesn’t yet have any projects involving Mustangs flying off into the sunset. But they could be on the horizon, according to Singh. Although admittedly he’s perhaps speaking in broader terms about the industry rather than Ford’s specific ambitions.
“What we are interested in is building a scalable [flying car concept] which operates on the order of magnitude that cars now operate,” he said. “And for that a lot of these little steps need to be crossed, starting off with these low footprint drones that are very lightweight and do something useful – Until we bring society, the government, customers, the market, shareholders.. to a point where flying cars become a reality.
“You can bring about change, but you can’t bring about too much change at once.”
Why is Ford Interested in Drones?
It’s easy to think that Ford is breaking new ground with its exploration of drone technology. And in a way, that assumption would be correct.
However, as Singh explains, the move highlights that Ford sees itself as more than just a car manufacturer. The company is about mobility: getting things and people from one place to another; using machines to make our lives easier. Viewed in that context, Ford’s drone division makes sense. The company has also made strategic investments and acquisitions in the drone space, with a view to creating a “multi-modal mobility ecosystem.”
With that in mind, Singh explains his role in more detail. First of all, the work involves the technical stream: integrating drones with Ford’s vehicles, “getting drones into the mobility ecosystem, building innovation acceleration tools and inventing concepts around the area of flight,” he says.
That might sound like a lot of buzzwords, but exploration often involves not having a well-defined endpoint – so fair enough.
The second role involves getting involved with policy making: “interfacing with government entities, interfacing with the FAA. And not just in the US but in the EU as well,” he says. Rather than getting involved in drone policy for the sake of it, Ford clearly has longer-term ambitions in the space. That’s why the company wants to have “a pulse on how the industry is shaping up – because we want to inform our strategy according to what the operational framework for UAVs will be 2 years from now, not what it is right now.”
The final part is to ensure that Ford keeps an eye on the bigger picture, and that there’s a product development roadmap in place and deliverables that make strategic sense to the business.
Ford’s Future Plans
Ford is currently developing a drone platform that can be used by its team of engineers as a tool upon which all kinds of applications can be built. Aside from that, the company appears to have plans for both the recreational and professional markets.
Speculating on what Ford will come up with 5 years from now, Singh points out a couple of viable markets and options for the company.
“Five years is so far ahead to see, but when we are discussing our business priorities, one thing we make certain is that we have a lot of momentum around any mode of mobility that shows business potential.”
“Ultimately yes, we do tinker with the toys and build a lot of cool stuff and we have fun, but everything needs to have a business case behind it.”
It might be that some of Ford’s more adventurous vehicles come with a drone to help drivers capture moments from above.
“What do you do with vehicles like the Bronco and Raptor? You take them off-roading and you want to capture some of these nice moments,” he said.
Commercial operations are definitely on the radar, too. Singh mentions agriculture and pizza delivery. It’s not that Ford will be looking into novel applications necessarily, but that the company will look for novel ways to implement those applications.