By on June 15, 2017

Drone, Public Domain

Now that automakers have more or less mastered the ability to assemble competent transportation for the masses, the quest to build a better car has branched out into strange places. Connectivity is one of the burgeoning frontiers of automotive achievement and its threshold for greatness continues to be raised. With navigation and phone integration handled, manufacturers have begun seeking other ways to interconnect vehicles with all manner of devices. Occupants can now benefit from onboard GPS, Wi-Fi, and — more recently — smart home devices like Amazon’s Echo.

Drones could be next.

While it sounds almost comically implausible, several automakers and suppliers have begun toying with the idea of equipping specific models with drones. Last September, Mercedes-Benz introduced the idea that its delivery vans should have the option of being equipped with package-toting quadcopters as part of a five-year-plan to terrify suburbia. FCA designed a concept Wrangler for the Easter Jeep Safari that included a roof-mounted landing pad for a recreational drone. Mitsubishi Electric is showcasing its new FLEXConnect.AI infotainment platform with drone functionality. 

While all three examples are in the earliest stages of development and may never yield flying mechanical fruit, it’s interesting to see car builders seeking applications for the technology. It might sound like future fantasy but all three examples have a basis in reality. Amazon has already begun testing delivery drones and has even used them to make successful drop offs — though for purely promotional purposes.

Meanwhile, the scouting bots proposed are already being used routinely by the military. The United States frequently uses unmanned drones for reconnaissance in unfamiliar territory, often before blowing up targets. According to Mitsubishi, it would use flying robots for similar purposes — the scouting, not the devastation.

“The drone lifts up and acts as a guide when going through the woods. If there is a log in the trail, it can warn the driver ahead of time,” Mitsubishi Electric UX expert Jacek Spiewla told Wards Auto during an demo at Detroit’s TU-Automotive conference.

Spiewla claims manufacturers are interested in what drones can do for upcoming design concepts and are asking about urban applications, such as investigating traffic accidents or finding alternate routes.

Mitsubishi’s FLEXConnect.AI UX concept provides a simple interface that issues hypothetical drone commands like “follow me” or “scout.” Complex computerized guidance systems do the rest as an in-car feed shows you everything the little robot sees. Of course, this is only a simulated experience. Mitsubishi doesn’t currently have a physical drone capable of the kind of autonomy this sort of tech would require, but it is available should they want to pursue it.

Whether or not drone implementation has a future in the automotive realm is highly specious. Without absolutely perfect navigational abilities, it would only be suited to certain types of vehicles undertaking very specific activities. There are also loads of FAA rules regarding the legal usage of drones and plenty of murky areas automakers would have to wade into if they ever wanted to get serious about using the technology commercially. But the seeds have been planted and, at the very least, some companies are taking it into consideration.

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