Ford studies space robots to improve car safety
By David Szondy
August 26, 2013
Ford has turned to space robots in an effort to make driving safer and more efficient. The motor car company has embarked on a three-year research partnership with the telematics department of St. Petersburg Polytechnic University in Russia to study communications systems for space robots as a way of improving technology currently under development to produce cars able to communicate directly with one another and with the internet.
At the moment, driving is a matter of either having no idea of what’s going on beyond your range of sight or relying on information broadcast from distant sources. The result is sitting in traffic jams while alternate routes are free, hazards catching drivers unawares, and emergency services having problems getting to where they’re needed.
One promising solution to this is the development of connected cars, which are able to communicate with one another, or with nearby buildings, street lamps, traffic lights, the cloud or other systems to provide drivers and emergency services with a complete, highly localized picture of the situation as well as warnings of imminent collisions. The hope is that this will reduce traffic congestion, accidents and lead to faster, more accurate emergency responses.
The problem is, how to make such a system work efficiently. Worse, how to make it work at all if it’s damaged, which is likely when it will be needed most. Ford gives the example of an accident that knocks out vehicle-to-cloud communications. In many systems, knocking out such a key component would shut everything down, but Ford sees something more decentralized like an automotive internet. If the cloud is inaccessible, then emergency response teams could still send and receive information by sending it via other vehicles or infrastructure down the line until it reaches an intact access point to the cloud.
“The research of fallback options and robust message networks is important,” says Oleg Gusikhin, technical leader in systems analytics for Ford. “If one network is down, alternatives need to be identified and strengthened to reliably propagate messages between networks.”
This is where space robots come in. Or more precisely, the field of telematics or communicating with and controlling remote objects. NASA, ESA and other space agencies and organizations are all working on improving space communications as new spacecraft require more efficient data links. This is especially important for robots, whether they are robotic helpers on a space station or rovers on a planet surface. They need robust communications with increasingly large bandwidth.
Ford is particularly keen on the systems used for NASA’s Robonaut 2, ESA’s Eurobot and the DLR's JUSTIN Humanoid robot. Such robots use a number of networking technologies, such as dedicated short-range communication, cellular LTE wireless broadband and mesh networking.
Ford is studying how the technology developed for communicating with these space robots could be used for connected cars. One hope is to develop an algorithm that a system could use to rate messages and route them according to their importance with emergency messages having priority on high-speed networks and entertainment feeds on less robust networks.
“We are analyzing the data to research which networks are the most robust and reliable for certain types of messages, as well as fallback options if networks were to fail in a particular scenario,” says Gusikhin,. “In a crash, for example, a vehicle could have the option to communicate an emergency though a DSRC, LTE or a mesh network based on the type of signal, speed and robustness required to reach emergency responders as quickly as possible.”
In the video below, Gusikhin explains Ford’s research on connected vehicles.