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Car Spotter Plane

Model aircraft to scout the road ahead
  (+6, -2)
(+6, -2)
  [vote for,

It's frustrating to get stuck behind a car doing 35mph in a 60mph limit. On the twisty roads with which the UK is blessed, it is often impossible to see far enough ahead to be sure of having enough clear road in which to overtake. If you knew that the road was clear right round the next bend, you could overtake with confidence and safety.

Enter the spotter plane. A medium sized model aircraft, it is equipped with a camera to watch the road below. A radio beacon emitted by a base unit in your car allows it to assume one of a number of positions between immediately above your car and a quarter of a mile ahead of you. Alternatively it can be piloted from a control station accessible from the passenger seat.

Should contact between aircraft and vehicle be lost, for example through a tunnel, the plane will continue on course until the car's beacon is again detected. Advanced versions interface with a car's sat-nav to determine when the car will disappear, and where it will reappear.

The plane returns to ground beneath a parachute, thus removing the need for a landing strip. This system also provides safety for bystanders if the aircraft runs out of fuel.

david_scothern, Aug 09 2005

A little beaut http://www.qinetiq....e/observer_uav.html
Neat navigation - it flies itself to where the operator touches the map display. Superbly crafted image display system. :-) [AbsintheWithoutLeave, Aug 09 2005]

Car Periscope Car_20periscope
To help those trapped behind a seemingly slow car. [reensure, Aug 10 2005]


       Easily bakable. Would need only an autopilot, local terrain map (don't want it flying into the mountainside as you enter that tunnel), a GPS on the plane and car, and some sort of two-way radio link.   

       Why worry about a parachute? Model planes exist that are able to accomodate the reasonable range of automobile speeds, as well as survive a near zero distance landing via a controlled crash (deep stalling flare right above ground level).   

       What happens during rush-hour when everyone has one of these?
Freefall, Aug 09 2005

       The idea is good, up until the last paragraph and the parachute. As Freefall may have been suggesting; just land the airplane on the car's roof while driving. I know it's been done with Piper Cubs and trucks, and it could be easily programmable for an auto-landing, if you'll pardon the pun.   

       A custom roof rack, maybe a beacon of some sort, combined with an autopilot program, could make this idea fly. Fishing parachutes out of trees would not be as practical.   

       As for safety for the bystanders in the event of an emergency landing, a parachute is hard to control. If it is a true emergency, an un-manned aircraft could be crashed vertically into all kinds of places. Hmm, either way, somebody is going to sue you for liability.   

       I've thought a rotorcraft would be good for this. But now that I think about it, I'm not sure. If the system really works well, you'd be driving too fast for a model helicopter to keep up. Maybe a helicopter for town use and an out-of-town speedster is what you'd want.
baconbrain, Aug 09 2005

       One ramification: limited peripheral vision and maybe missing someone entering the road from a 'hidden' drive (we have lots of them). I've known people to pay for that oversight.   

       Very nostalgic, by the way, to mention a twisting road with its 60mph speed limit. I remember these from years ago when the speed limit was generally 75mph.
reensure, Aug 10 2005

       The possibility of someone joining the road from a driveway is relevant, but the problem is avoidable. I envisage the aircraft flying several hundred feet in the air to give a bird's-eye view of the road for a useful distance in all directions. That way you would be able to see people pulling out ahead of you. I agree with [Pa`ve] that it would be best operated by a passenger when possible; for the driver to use it, much of the workload would have to be handled automatically.   

       One thought; detecting a moving vehicle automatically would not be hard to do - from above, it's no more than a large rectangle moving relative to the ground. If none were detected within say 5m either side of the road, the driver could be informed, "Road clear for 300m." Detection of horses, motorbikes etc would perhaps be slightly more of a challenge.
david_scothern, Aug 10 2005

       Um, sorry. It's the "moving relative to the ground" bit that may require massive amounts of computing.   

       If the aircraft were stationary in the sky, the ground would be the unchanging part of a video image, and could be ignored, while anything moving would stand out. Heck, animals do that all the time, and computers are equal to spiders now, aren't they?   

       If the aircraft is moving, the ground becomes much harder to ignore. If it were flat and featureless, it could be done. But if, say, some maniac with a spotter plane is blasting down a lane with trees arching over it, and your plane is moving at right angles to that lane, it will take a lot of computing to pick the moving car out of the relatively-moving trees. (If the wind is blowing the leaves around, things get much worse.)   

       A possible trick to use there has just occurred to me. Put two identical cameras in the aircraft, one in the nose, one in the tail. Fire them both at regular intervals, but delay the tail camera until the aircraft has moved so it is in the place just occupied by the nose camera. This will give two images from the same place, separated in time. Which might allow the automatic detection of moving objects, provided the time interval is sufficient, et c.
baconbrain, Aug 10 2005

       That might work. Of course, there would be circumstances in which such image processing would be successful, and times when it wouldn't work so well. If the road is covered by trees then the system should tell the driver that it can't determine whether the road is clear or not. Under such circumstances it would be appropriate for a passenger to watch the picture instead; if you've no passenger then you'd best reign your driving in for your own safety.
david_scothern, Aug 10 2005

       //There's nothing to stop the system telling the driver that it can't work out whether the road is clear or not.// <Over-flying French tree-lined country road> "Yes I'm working. No I'm not. Yes I'm working. No I'm not "<da capo>
coprocephalous, Aug 10 2005

       (looks pained) that wasn't what I meeaannt... I was more thinking that, in audio-only mode, you'd request information by pressing a button. Either you'd get, "Road clear for x metres", or "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that".   

       Should the clear section then become occupied unexpectedly, the system will scream at you, "Abort! Abort!" or something of that nature.
david_scothern, Aug 10 2005

       I have recovered memories of my mother screaming that at me.   

       Sorry, just trying to be funny. I was laughing at the last few annotations--much better than the stuff the silly ideas generate.   

       The spotter plane under discussion does not have to work under all circumstances, or even to work perfectly when you do use it. It's an aid, not an angel. If it encourages you drive 200 kph, it increases your chances of blowing a tyre or something like that. You take your chances with it. I'd love to have one, and to ride as spotter/navigator in the Dakar Rally.   

       We can discuss problems as part of a search for improvement, but I've seen good ideas get shut down because people want perfection and protection. If it helps, it's worth what you want to pay for it.   

       Um, back on topic: I'd like to add a robot docking arm to that custom roof rack I described earlier. If it could snake around to meet the airplane, landings would be a snip. If the aircraft is launched and retrieved while driving fast, it can be made more streamlined, faster and harder to see. If it is retrieved and launched quickly, you might get away with having it longer. Because this idea has to be illegal.
baconbrain, Aug 10 2005

       I have memories of my mother screaming that too, while I was having driving lessons...   

       As baconbrain says, this system can't provide perfection that will give you every possible opportunity to pass slow drivers. What it might manage is to identify, safely, a reasonable percentage of them.   

       From the discussion here, it appears that the main problem (apart from the legal aspects) is that of landing the model. Controlling a model aircraft in flight is relatively simple; takeoff is easy if the car is already doing 35mph, but landing is going to need some specialised kit. Instead of a robot arm, I'd suggest landing it into a big net deployed above the vehicle, although only because it would cost less.
david_scothern, Aug 10 2005

       I'm starting to think that a kite might be a lot easier to manage. You could make something like a fast sailplane, with control surfaces and all, and run the signals through the cable. Landing it would be a matter of reeling it in, and you could probably make it duck under power lines without reeling in.   

       With a thirty-foot cable, the flight position would be the birds-eye view of a driving video game. I've been in a towed flying machine behind a pickup truck, and can tell you the view from there is great. It wouldn't be as good as a plane out ahead, but it might be easier to understand through a monitor, and it would be cheaper all around.
baconbrain, Aug 10 2005


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