It’s been more than a century since Ford Motor Co. pioneered the assembly line, but the automaker still has a few more tricks up its sleeve.
And we’re not talking about electric vehicles or self-driving cars. While those are emerging technologies, Ford (NYSE: F) has something even more ambitious in mind.
The company last week published a patent that outlines a system for “decentralized hybrid air-ground autonomous last-mile goods delivery.” That’s a mouthful, but essentially Ford wants to use its delivery vans to directly launch and control unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.
There’s a lot going on in the above diagram, but the system boils down to a variation on the hub-and-spoke model. Used frequently in logistics and transportation, it typically involves a warehouse or fulfillment center (the hub) using a fleet of delivery vehicles (the spokes) to fulfill orders.
In Ford’s system, the delivery vehicle becomes the hub while the drones serve as spokes. Drones would be docked and launched from on top of the vehicle, which then pilots the aircraft to their drop-off location. Then, the drones would communicate with nearby Ford vehicles to find the closest place to dock.
The model laid out by Ford could have a major impact on drone delivery and last-mile delivery more broadly. As it stands, commercial drone delivery services overwhelmingly operate out of stationary hubs. By giving that hub wheels, drone delivery companies could move their services into areas with higher demand without shelling out for a new landing pad.
The implications for last-mile delivery are just as fascinating.
Consider this: A delivery vehicle needs to make 10 deliveries within a neighborhood. Rather than driving to each residence and dropping the package on the customer’s doorstep, the driver could stay in one place and instead instruct the vehicle to launch a fleet of drones. That way, they would be able to make multiple deliveries at once.
Ford’s patent actually resembles one published by Amazon about a year ago. In Amazon’s model, delivery vans would instead release a fleet of small, ground-based drones. From there, the van would direct the drones where and what to deliver, similar to how the delivery vehicle would function in Ford’s system.
The automaker’s model is also similar to a system proposed by Walmart last month. The world’s largest retailer apparently is looking to combine drones with autonomous delivery vehicles to add a failsafe to its last mile. For example, if the vehicle identifies something blocking its path, like a gate, it would automatically release a drone to complete the delivery.
Watch: Where is the future of drone infrastructure headed?
These models likely will take some time to come to fruition, but Ford already has been experimenting with drones in other forms. It uses them at its engine plant in Valencia, Spain, to monitor inventory, and in Canada, the automaker is testing out a system for drones to land on moving vehicles.
Some of the company’s previous patent filings also address drone delivery solutions. Those include a vehicular storage compartment for drones as well as a pair of solutions that would use them to jump-start stalled vehicles and help drivers remember where they parked their car.
Earlier this week, Ford reported U.S. sales figures that highlighted growth in its electric vehicles, another area where the company is innovating. As of last month, the automaker had sold 30,648 EVs, including 7,700 units in July alone, which marked a 169% increase from last year.
Already, Ford’s flagship F-150 Lighting electric pickup is completely sold out in the U.S. in 2022. The vehicle has been delivered to customers in all 50 states, and the automaker now expects to produce 150,000 of the trucks by mid-2023 to meet unexpectedly high demand. Last month, its share of the U.S. EV market hit a record-high 10.9%.