What Ford will learn about the connected car from space robots

In its efforts to build a better connected car, Ford(s f) is doing research in a rather odd place: the International Space Station. Ford is entering into a three-year project with St. Petersburg Polytechnic University to study how space-based research and exploration robots communicate through telematics networks.
What do robots have to do with cars? Well, the next-generation of space-based robots will be some of the most hyper-connected machines in the universe, relying on multiple radio technologies to communicate with the space station, the astronauts they’re meant to assist, and human controllers back on Earth. Though robots will be able to function with some autonomy, they’ll constantly be coordinating with computers and maybe even other robots.

The European Space Agency’s Eurobot

Ford believes that the future connected car will function much the same way, acting semi-autonomously while coordinating its activities with cloud traffic management systems as well as the highway infrastructure and vehicles around them. Just as robots use multiple radio technologies to maintain those different “tethers” to mission control, future cars will come outfitted with multiple network links, from LTE to dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) to Wi-Fi mesh.
What Ford is particularly interested in are the redundancies that St. Petersburg Polytechnic is developing for its robot telematics networks. As you can imagine, having your control link to a robot cut isn’t something any astronaut wants to deal with — in the hazardous environment of space or in the limited confines of a space station, retrieving your suddenly unresponsive robot is a lot harder than it sounds.
But that broken control link could then be routed over different networks, say a wireless local area networks used for internet access or a direct radio link to another robot. The guy with the joystick in his hand may have to take a more circuitous route to communicate with his metallic friend, but he’ll still be able to communicate.
That same principle applies to the connected car. As cars become more intelligent and autonomous, they’ll depend on an array of sensors and network connections to feed them information. Cars will form vast constantly shifting ad hoc networks, transmitting information to one another about their acceleration, braking, lane changes and even eventual destinations, which in turn will allow them to coordinate their driving. Vehicles will also communicate with highway infrastructure around them and connect to the internet through cellular connections. According to Ford technical leader in systems analytics Oleg Gusikhin:

“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. 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.”

Though Ford’s initial focus is on using telematics redundancy to route emergency communications, it’s easy to see how these multinode networks could be used in other scenarios.
If the vehicle-to-vehicle radios in your car were to suddenly go down, chances are you’d want to take direct control of the wheel, but that doesn’t mean your car has to go off grid. Other radios could communicate with the vehicle-to-infrastructure network or even the cloud through a cellular connection, which could then pass on your car’s sensor data to other vehicles around you. Those other vehicles could in turn use the same channels to pass key information back to your car, for instance warning you of accidents or traffic jams ahead.
Many of these ad hoc-networking concepts relate to the shared bandwidth principles we plan to discuss October 16-17 at Mobilize 2013 in San Francisco. If vehicles were able to securely share their connections, we could always communicate with the internet and critical transportation systems by the most efficient – and often cheapest — means possible. So say instead of streaming high-quality audio over an expensive LTE connection, cars could use their vehicular mesh to pass the stream along from a highway access point car to car until it reached your dashboard.

NASA's Robonaut 2 on board the International Space Station

NASA’s Robonaut 2 on board the International Space Station

Ford’s project with St. Petersburg Polytechnic will focus on multiple robots, including the NASA-designed Robonaut 2, which is already aboard the ISS; the European Space Agency’s Eurobot Ground Prototype, a robotic assistant designed to aid astronauts on a planet’s surface, and Justin, a humanoid robot designed by Germany’s DLR for fine-grained manipulation of objects