Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have pitted a human-operated drone versus an AI-operated one to find out who’s more consistent and faster.
The high-speed sport is the culmination of a two year-research into drone autonomy funded by Google.
Google has been interested in JPL’s work with vision-based navigation for spacecraft. To demonstrate their progress, JPL set up a timed trial on October 12 between their AI, and world-class drone pilot Ken Loo.
The team built three custom drones (dubbed Batman, Joker and Nightwing) and developed the complex algorithms the drones needed to fly at high speeds while avoiding obstacles. These algorithms were integrated with Google’s Tango technology, which JPL also worked on.
The drones were built to racing specifications and could easily go as fast as 80 mph (129 kph) in a straight line. But on the obstacle course set up in a JPL warehouse, they could only fly at 30 or 40 mph (48 to 64 kph) 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.”
Compared to Loo, the drones flew more cautiously but consistently. Loo attained higher speeds and was able to perform impressive aerial corkscrews. But he was limited by exhaustion, something the AI-piloted drones didn’t have to deal with.
For the official laps, Loo averaged 11.1 seconds, compared to the autonomous drones, which averaged 13.9 seconds. But the latter was more consistent overall. Where Loo’s times varied more, the AI was able to fly the same racing line every lap.
Without a human pilot, autonomous drones typically rely on GPS to find their way around. That’s not an option for indoor spaces like warehouses or dense urban areas. A similar challenge is faced by autonomous cars.
Camera-based localization and mapping technologies have various potential applications, Reid added. 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.
Image credits, video and content: NASA/JPL-Caltech