An expert human pilot was successfully able to beat flying drones controlled by artificial intelligence (AI) systems in a race organized by NASA. However, the AI-driven drones were more consistent in their performance, scientists said.
Drone racing is a high-speed sport demanding instinctive reflexes. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the US put their work to the test recently. Timing laps through a twisting obstacle course, they raced drones controlled by AI against world-class drone pilot Ken Loo.
The team built three custom drones – dubbed Batman, Joker and Night wing – and developed the complex algorithms the drones needed to fly at high speeds while avoiding obstacles. The drones were built to racing specifications and could easily go as fast as 129 kmph in a straight line. However, on the obstacle course set up in a JPL warehouse, they could only fly at 48 to 64 kilometers per hour before they needed to apply the brakes.
“We pitted our algorithms against a human, who flies a lot more by feel,” said Rob Reid of JPL, the project’s task manager. “You can actually see that the AI flies the drone smoothly around the course, whereas human pilots tend to accelerate aggressively, so their path is jerkier,” Reid said. Compared to Loo, the drones flew more cautiously but consistently. Their algorithms are still a work in progress.
For example, the drones sometimes moved so fast that motion blur caused them to lose track of their surroundings. Loo attained higher speeds and was able to perform impressive aerial corkscrews. However, he was limited by exhaustion, something the AI-piloted drones did not have to deal with.
While the AI and human pilot started out with similar lap times, after dozens of laps, Loo learned the course and became more creative and nimble.
These technologies might allow drones to check on inventory in warehouses or assist search and rescue operations at disaster sites. They might even be used eventually to help future robots navigate the corridors of a space station.