The auto industry is seeing a steady influx of drone technology being used for a variety of purposes, ranging from moving lightweight parts over short distances to delivering new car keys amidst the pandemic to monitoring and inspecting plant infrastructure. Is the auto industry ready to take flight? Game on? Continuing just-auto/AIC’s series of research snapshots, Matthew Beecham takes a brief look at who is doing what in the auto sector with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Mapping new car parking lots
Audi recently let it be known that drones are being used to locate vehicles ready for dispatch at its Neckarsulm site. UAVs fly over the vehicle dispatch area and use GPS and RFID technology to identify and save the exact position of all vehicles. This helps employees to plan the necessary steps from completion of the vehicles to dispatch to the customers. Many different models roll off the lines at the Neckarsulm site every day. Following production, employees park the vehicles in the designated areas in the plant. Ensuring that each car finds its way to its new owner from here requires exact planning from production to dispatch. Audi says the drone makes it easier and more efficient to locate the vehicles at the site.
Contactless car key deliveries
Earlier this year and before COVID-19 hit the West and caused shockwaves to the auto industry, Geely Auto launched a new online buying service with a contactless delivery option. If selected, new car buyers may have their car keys delivered to their front door or balcony via drone to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Airbags flown in trackside
Last year, the SEAT factory in Martorell became the first Spanish plant to receive components via drone delivery. In collaboration with Grupo Sesé, the Spanish carmaker, is trialling the use of drones to connect Sesé’s logistics and warehouse centre in Abrera with the Martorell plant. Lightweight components such as airbags and sensors are being flown 1.2 miles between facilities several times a day. The pilot project is being carried out under the supervision of the Spanish Aviation Safety and Security Agency. The move is framed within SEAT’s commitment to Industry 4.0.
Stocktaking from the air
Skoda has also been pressing ahead with the implementation of technologies in line with Industry 4.0 principles. At its Mladá Boleslav plant, the Czech automaker has been trailing drones that can identify and count containers outside the factory from the air. The drone is a result of collaboration between the brand’s logistics department and the Czech company Robodrone, and is said to be paving the way to implementing drone-assisted stocktaking in everyday operations in future.
Searching for parking spaces
Mitsubishi Electric has been exploring ways in which the car’s infotainment system could be used to help drivers find and reserve the nearest open parking spot using drones. The supplier’s solution is drones connected to the in-car infotainment system to act as personal parking-lot scouts and attendants. In a blog, Gareth Williams, Executive Director of Advanced Development at Mitsubishi Electric Automotive America, explains how it works. As a driver approaches the entrance of a parking lot, the car’s drone (which is docked on the roof of the car) takes to the air. It rises above the crowd of cars and, seeing that there are no open spots in the current lot, flies to the next. With its camera, the drone zooms in to see a car pulling out of spot #26. It sends video of the newly available space through a wireless link to the FLEXConnect.AI system in the car. At that point, the driver assays the proposed spot and clicks OK. The drone, having received the green light, flies down to the spot and hovers there to reserve it. Meanwhile, the nav system reroutes the car with a map and turn-by-turn directions to the safely held acquisition.
Aerial inspection of stranded vehicles
Since last October, 360 Towing Solutions Houston has been using drones to inspect car breakdown situations within the local area. The company deploys drones to take photos and videos of stranded vehicles. The drone then relays these images to the company’s control room allowing them to determine exactly the type of tools and truck required to attend a breakdown.
Ford employees are using cameras mounted on drones to inspect high-rise gantries, pipework and roof areas at the company’s Dagenham Engine Plant in the UK. Previously, the team carried out this maintenance work by using automated extendable platforms and scaffolding to check 40-metre-long gantries that support the plant’s heavy machinery. Each inspection area would typically take 12 hours to complete. Now, with drones equipped with Yuneec E90 cameras, maintenance staff can thoroughly inspect each area in just 12 minutes. The whole production facility can be covered in a day, zoning in on hard-to-reach areas to ensure they are well-maintained and comply to rigorous safety standards.
Have drones come of age in the auto industry?
It’s probably too early to say. While there are isolated examples of UAVs being put to good use – saving time and operational costs while maintaining social distances during the pandemic – there are still thorny issues around regulations and safety to wade through. Ground-based, last mile autonomous delivery robots are more advanced though. While nobody can be sure what the ‘new normal’ will look like, we can be confident that social distancing will be with us for the foreseeable future. No longer seen as a joke or a fad, drones and delivery robots have shifted from a novel way of doing business to a clear public health benefit. And unlike autonomous vehicles, we don’t have to trust them with our lives. As regulators cut more red tape, we shouldn’t be surprised to see and hear more bots and drones in the post-coronavirus world.