A newly published patent application from Ford takes a novel approach to dealing with dead car batteries. The patent proposes using drones to help jumpstart stranded vehicles and get them back on the road.
But the technology comes with roadblocks of its own that have skeptics questioning whether it’s worth the effort, expense, and hassle. Does this patent potentially have wings, or is Ford going to have to go back to the drawing board?
The application, which you can download and read in PDF format by clicking this link, is fairly straightforward: Essentially, drones would be deployed to the scene of a dead vehicle battery and jumpstart it.
One method proposed in the patent language includes jumping the vehicle by having drones haul a charging block to the vehicle. However, this is not necessarily the most reliable method, as charging blocks, like batteries, can lose their charges over time, making them a dubious and power-inefficient method of reviving the battery.
But Ford proposed another method in which a flight of drones specially equipped with trident-style connectors on servitor arms connect with each other and tap into the drones’ own power cells by forming a sort of daisy-chain circuit which could then be used to rejuvenate depleted vehicle batteries.
Ford has long been interested in ways to incorporate drone technology into its vehicles and offerings, including so-called “last-mile” delivery which relies on a fleet of drones hidden in cargo trucks to deliver goods to multiple locations in a relatively limited area at one time. After all, drones are being used to deliver everything from lunch to human organs for transplantation, so the sky is literally the limit with what drones can do.
But what happens when the rubber meets the road for these flying AAA replacements?
The practical problems faced by this patent are numerous. One of the most obvious is the fact that, in the time it would take for a Ford owner to report the problem and have drones deployed to the breakdown site, they would likely have plenty of opportunities to catch a jumpstart from a passing motorist. However, many people don’t carry jumper cables in their vehicles anymore, citing clutter as a key reason. The deeper problem, of course, is that in our rush-rush-busy-busy society, people are generally less willing to stop and try to help strangers than they used to be, for reasons ranging from self-protection to simple selfishness.
Then there’s AAA and other roadside assistance programs. If the vehicle’s battery proves not to be the culprit for the vehicle not starting, a tow truck may be needed. No matter how powerful a drone is, it’s not going to be able to deal with more complex problems like a blown alternator or a vehicle that’s out of gas, especially in more remote areas of the country where the nearest “anything” could be thirty-plus miles away!
Finally, there’s the issue of how to be sure to deploy enough drones to help the stranded vehicle in a timely manner. What if one or more of the drones failed in transit, or arrived at the vehicle with insufficient onboard charge to be viable in assisting the stranded vehicle? This would obviously require sending more drones, at greater expense to the company…and that money has to come from somewhere. It seems unlikely that Ford would want to take on such expense itself, and customers would likely balk at the cost of a subscription-based roadside assistance service using drones.
So why go for a patent like this in the first place?
As we’ve talked about before, many companies submit patents they have no real intention of doing anything with anytime soon or at all. In many cases, this is designed as a power play to help the company increase its IP holdings, ensuring that even if a competitor comes up with a workable version of the patent design, they would in turn have to pay the company holding the patent a licensing fee or other considerations to be able to successfully deploy and use the technology in question.
In this case, Ford’s idea for an airborne AAA or Amazon delivery hub has been on the drawing board since 2017, but is only now being published for reasons known only to the USPTO and Ford. Ford doesn’t necessarily have to actually create this system or invest in making it work to profit from it–the company simply has to let it be known that they own the patent to this idea. Then, if someone else were to decide to develop it, that person or company would be spending the time, R&D budget, and energy, but they’d still have to cut Ford in on the final iteration…including the profits to be made from it!
Will this patent fly?
All that's required for a patent to be approved is an innovative idea or method of using things that no one else has thought of before, not that the owner of the IP actually intends to release the final product to the public. I think it’s highly unlikely, no pun intended, that Ford has any intention of using this patent or developing and perfecting the technology involved themselves. It makes a lot more sense as a value proposition for existing and prospective shareholders (“We’ve added another 311 approved patents to our IP holdings this year alone…”) and as a safeguard against other companies trying to do the same thing without having to actually invest the R&D capital, time, and resources which making such a system viable and functional would require.
But I think it’s safe to say that drones won’t be sending jumper cables the way of the dodo anytime soon, so it’s still a good idea to keep a set in your car for now!
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