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Ford uses space robot communications to serve connected cars

Ford collaborates with St Petersburg State Polytechnic University in Russia to develop car communications using technology designed for space robotics

The Ford Motor Company and scientists at Russia's St Petersburg State Polytechnic have used telematics expertise – more commonly deployed in developing space robot communications – to develop a highly reliable data communications system for connected vehicles. 

The team applied the same multichannel connectivity principles used to operate a robot on Earth via a joystick aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in the three-year project. The main goal of the programme was to develop a more robust communications platform for connecting drivers and service providers with information and services in the cloud.

Ford wanted to address the problem of maintaining reliable communications between vehicles and the cloud in major cities where wireless networks are often overloaded; or in isolated rural areas, where they are often non-existent. It has now filed several patents as a result of its work with St Petersburg State Polytechnic University.

“The challenge of creating a robust wireless communications network is shared between the space and automotive industries,” explained Oleg Gusikhin, technical leader, Advanced Connected Services at Ford Research at Advanced Engineering.

“These first results are very promising in terms of offering more reliable communications technology for the future of connected vehicles.”

The trial

Ford’s prototype technology collects and transmits data into the cloud from moving vehicles over cellular channels, Wi-Fi or via other vehicles, using an intelligent connectivity manager to select the best available connectivity option.

Researchers developed a small-scale connectivity coverage map showing local landscape features, incorporating data on the location of fixed and mobile wireless access points, quality of service on available comms channels and traffic conditions.

They then played out a scenario where critical information would need to be shared between cars – in this case a car entering a tunnel, encountering black ice and notifying the following traffic. With no cellular connection in the tunnel and Wi-Fi not an option, the vehicle used a second car, exiting the tunnel in the opposite direction, to bounce first a vehicle-to-vehicle, and then a cellular connection into the cloud.

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In the trial, the first car’s intelligent connectivity manager selected the second car’s vehicle-to-vehicle channel to deliver the warning message via the Ford cloud to following vehicles, alerting them of dangerous conditions at the tunnel mouth. If no following cars were found, the connectivity manager held off sending the message until the first car had a clear cellular network signal again.

For non-emergency communications, the system consults coverage maps to determine the best point for service delivery. For example, if a vehicle is travelling through a remote area and a software update becomes available, it can hold off on delivery until the signal returns.

Smart city applications

Ford said that, in the future, as cars using such a system became more widespread, a universal map could reflect all current data and act as a database for implementing smart city projects.

For example, a moving or parked vehicle with a stable network connection could become a resource to allow connection to information services for other nearby devices.

St Petersburg State head of telematics, Vladimir Zaborovksy, said the systems developed were already highly reliable, scalable and adaptable.

“They open broad prospects for application – both in transportation logistics and in space,” Zaborovksy said.

Zaborovsky’s team is working to advance the multichannel connectivity technology used to operate an Earthbound robot from the ISS, to allow space scientists operating on a planet’s surface to remotely control robots assembling scientific equipment and satellites in outer space.

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