Ford Is Doing Intensive Drone Testing in Detroit—Here’s Why
BY Zacc Dukowitz14 November 2023
Ford is doing intensive drone delivery testing right now.
Credit: Michigan Central
The testing is taking place at the Michigan Central Station, an old, out-of-use train station that Ford has been rehabbing into a new technology hub.
Although the testing is based out of the Station it’s happening in a much larger area. Working in partnership with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), the iconic automotive company has established a three-mile radius area for testing, which extends into surrounding neighborhoods.
What Is Ford Testing?
Drone delivery is the main focus of the testing, with Ford making deliveries to nearby homes and apartment buildings. But Ford is also looking into building inspections and other potential commercial drone applications.
According to the company, the focus for the delivery testing will start with medical drone deliveries, including medical supplies and prescription drugs.
The main focus of the tests is on flying Beyond Visual Line of Sight, which is essential for the flexibility needed for most any mid- to long-range drone delivery operation to succeed. Eventually, Ford would like to get BVLOS approval from the FAA as the result of these tests.
Credit: Michigan Central
The reporting we’ve seen doesn’t specify how Ford would like to get BVLOS approval. But we imagine the company could be interested in securing a Part 135, which would allow it to operate as a small airline for making package deliveries, giving it permission to fly BVLOS and over people.
Only four companies currently have a Part 135 certificate: Wing, Amazon Prime Air, UPS Flight Forward, and Zipline.
Although smaller players have tried to secure Part 135s, the long, expensive process has not yet resulted in successful outcomes for them, making it seem like BVLOS drone delivery may be limited only to those companies with deep pockets. (Companies like Flytrex and DroneUp, which also do drone delivery, have so far conducted their operations within visual line of sight.)
If Ford succeeds in getting a Part 135, it will be one more marker underscoring the perception that this coveted certification is only available to the biggest players on the field.
And it has a good chance of succeeding. By partnering with the MDOT, as well as Airspace Link and Newlab, a neighboring space for innovative automotive startups, Ford will leverage the clout of these established transportation and drone infrastructure entities while also gathering lots of data, positioning it well to pursue FAA approval.
The Bigger Picture for Ford and Drones
So what’s motivating these tests? Profit, of course.
A recent report from Market.us finds that the drone delivery industry is growing like crazy, and is projected to hit $65 billion by 2032. And Ford, looking for new revenue channels, wants a piece of this growth.
While it may sound crazy on its face for Ford to be looking into drone delivery, the company’s reasoning is that drones are part of the future of mobility, and Ford wants to position itself as a mobility company—not just a car company.
We think about it at the intersection of mobility and society. What I mean by that is real world problems, real world solutions in a real world environment.
– Carolina Pluszczynski, COO of Michigan Central Station
This perspective isn’t unique to Ford. Hyundai has also been working on the future of mobility, developing a fleet of self-driving vehicles that includes drones and ground-based technology—and not only are they autonomous, they also rely on hydrogen.
Ford’s ambitions aren’t quite as futuristic as Hyundai’s. But they are large, and they include more than merely getting a foothold in a specific market like drone delivery.
A key part of Ford’s plans for the future relies on the Michigan Central Station itself.
Ford has helped transform the Station into a technology and innovation hub, where it can conduct testing of all kinds of technologies. The goal of these tests isn’t to find individual successes, but to look for ways that different technologies like self-driving cars, drones, and the infrastructure and software that support them overlap in the overall effort of enabling mobility.
Michigan Central Station | Credit: Ford
The Station has a rich history, which is one of the reasons Ford chose it for this initiative. In 1913, it was opened as a massive, 18-story structure made to support the then-thriving auto industry in Detroit. Now, as Ford looks toward the future, it seems fitting that the Station will be reclaimed for investigating new technologies.
And Ford is serious about these investigations. The company is putting real money behind them, including relocating thousands of employees so they can support this work.
While the experiments with drone operations will be some of the first to happen in the Station, there will be many more to come.