Three drones per car sound about right

You know something is about to change the world when it becomes embedded

I always thought drones would be a feature of high end cars first.

Renault, a French car company, made quite a stir recently when they shared their thinking behind a concept car that sports a drone. Unveiled at the Delhi Auto Expo, the Kwid concept depicts a two-wheel drive with a 1.2 liter engine despite it’s SUV external looks. The purpose of the drone is said to be traffic spotting and taking photos of scenery (with the car in the photo of course, as an auto-selfie.. marketing built in). It will be interesting to see how much of the concept Renault manages to incorporate into their production cars, but the car/drone combo is out of the bag and it has captured everybody’s imagination.

The Renault Kwid concept car sports a drone

It is interesting that the Kwid is not marketed as a high end car, yet it is the first concept car to feature a drone.

Safety features have a tendency to be introduced in luxury cars and trickle down a manufacturer’s range of models over time. Think double digit airbags, radar controlled braking, laser assisted autonomous cruise control, lane departure warnings.

It seems a natural extrapolation that the initial symbiotic role of drones for cars would be safety focused. Cars today come equipped with all kinds of passive and active sensors but they are limited by the fact that they have to be mounted on the car. What you really want is to know what is happening a few hundred meters or feet ahead of the vehicle as you drive. Apart from real-time satellite coverage (which might have a problem with cloud cover) and cars getting a feed of information from sensing systems on cars up ahead, an overhead view is hard to beat.

Having multiple views at your disposal is attractive. One drone could check out conditions up ahead while another monitors the immediate surroundings at all times. A killer app for drones launched from cars is likely to scout out the destination and looking for parking.

Many considerations remain. The immediate area in front of and around a car at speed should still be the driver’s main focus so video from a drone should not be beamed to a screen on the dashboard and require the driver to interpret it. An image processing facility that analyses the output and warns in case of obstacles would make more sense. Except when the car is at a standstill or a co-pilot is responsible for consuming the signals and making recommendations to the driver.

Another consideration is for the drone to be able to keep up with the car at speed. A typical speed for a hobbycopter is 15 m/s, just barely able to keep up with urban traffic. At double that speed, following a car on a highway is within the realm of the possible but the main concern of all drone flights, air time, becomes a concern the more power the drone expends.

That’s why three drones sound reasonable as a remote sensing system for a car. One or two drones could be airborne at any one time with the third on standby while charging its battery and ready to relieve a drone with low power. Regardless of the number of drones, you would want a battery charging and swapping system that could work in motion and without driver interference.

Apart from safety related functions, one or more drones swooping around a car could also be used — GoPro like — to capture compelling footage of your next road trip. Who wouldn’t want a great aerial sequence of your new Tesla cruising down Highway 1 in California as part of your holiday video?

Like LEDs, GPS and WiFi, drones are — at least at the concept level — becoming embedded systems. This is a powerful indication that it is a technology that will change our world.

Rewritten from an article on elevation.2, a blog about civilian use of drones.