Drone racing’s ultimate vision of quadcopters weaving nimbly through obstacle courses has attracted far less excitement and investment than self-driving cars aimed at reshaping ground transportation. But the U.S. military and defense industry are betting on autonomous drone racing as the next frontier for developing AI so that it can handle high-speed navigation within tight spaces without human intervention.
The autonomous drone challenge requires split-second decision-making with six degrees of freedom instead of a car’s mere two degrees of road freedom. One research team developing the AI necessary for controlling autonomous racing drones is the Robotics and Perception Group at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. In late May, the Swiss researchers were among nine teams revealed to be competing in the two-year AlphaPilot open innovation challenge sponsored by U.S. aerospace company Lockheed Martin. The winning team will walk away with up to $2.25 million for beating other autonomous racing drones and a professional human drone pilot in head-to-head competitions.
“I think it is important to first point out that having an autonomous drone to finish a racing track at high speeds or even beating a human pilot does not imply that we can have autonomous drones [capable of] navigating in real-world, complex, unstructured, unknown environments such as disaster zones, collapsed buildings, caves, tunnels or narrow pipes, forests, military scenarios, and so on,” says Davide Scaramuzza, a professor of robotics and perception at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich. “However, the robust and computationally efficient state estimation algorithms, control, and planning algorithms developed for autonomous drone racing would represent a starting point.”
The nine teams that made the cut—from a pool of 424 AlphaPilot applicants—will compete in four 2019 racing events organized under the Drone Racing League’s Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing Circuit, says Keith Lynn, program manager for AlphaPilot at Lockheed Martin. To ensure an apples-to-apples comparison of each team’s AI secret sauce, each AlphaPilot team will upload its AI code into identical, specially-built drones that have the NVIDIA Xavier GPU at the core of the onboard computing hardware.
“Lockheed Martin is offering mentorship to the nine AlphaPilot teams to support their AI tech development and innovations,” says Lynn. The company “will be hosting a week-long Developers Summit at MIT in July, dedicated to workshopping and improving AlphaPilot teams’ code,” he added. He notes that each team will retain the intellectual property rights to its AI code.
The AlphaPilot challenge takes inspiration from older autonomous drone racing events hosted by academic researchers, Scaramuzza says. He credits Hyungpil Moon, a professor of robotics and mechanical engineering at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea, for having organized the annual autonomous drone racing competition at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems since 2016.
It’s no easy task to create and train AI that can perform high-speed flight through complex environments by relying on visual navigation. One big challenge comes from how drones can accelerate sharply, take sharp turns, fly sideways, do zig-zag patterns and even perform back flips. That means camera images can suddenly appear tilted or even upside down during drone flight. Motion blur may occur when a drone flies very close to structures at high speeds and camera pixels collect light from multiple directions. Both cameras and visual software can also struggle to compensate for sudden changes between light and dark parts of an environment.
To lend AI a helping hand, Scaramuzza’s group recently published a drone racing dataset that includes realistic training data taken from a drone flown by a professional pilot in both indoor and outdoor spaces. The data, which includes complicated aerial maneuvers such as back flips, flight sequences that cover hundreds of meters, and flight speeds of up to 83 kilometers per hour, was presented at the 2019 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.
The drone racing dataset also includes data captured by the group’s special bioinspired event cameras that can detect changes in motion on a per-pixel basis within microseconds. By comparison, ordinary cameras need milliseconds (each millisecond being 1,000 microseconds) to compare motion changes in each image frame. The event cameras have already proven capable of helping drones nimbly dodge soccer balls thrown at them by the Swiss lab’s researchers.
The Swiss group’s work on the racing drone dataset received funding in part from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which acts as the U.S. military’s special R&D arm for more futuristic projects. Specifically, the funding came from DARPA’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy program that envisions small autonomous drones capable of flying at high speeds through cluttered environments without GPS guidance or communication with human pilots.
Such speedy drones could serve as military scouts checking out dangerous buildings or alleys. They could also someday help search-and-rescue teams find people trapped in semi-collapsed buildings or lost in the woods. Being able to fly at high speed without crashing into things also makes a drone more efficient at all sorts of tasks by making the most of limited battery life, Scaramuzza says. After all, most drone battery life gets used up by the need to hover in flight and doesn’t get drained much by flying faster.
Even if AI manages to conquer the drone racing obstacle courses, that would be the end of the beginning of the technology’s development. What would still be required? Scaramuzza specifically singled out the need to handle low-visibility conditions involving smoke, dust, fog, rain, snow, fire, hail, as some of the biggest challenges for vision-based algorithms and AI in complex real-life environments.
“I think we should develop and release datasets containing smoke, dust, fog, rain, fire, etc. if we want to allow using autonomous robots to complement human rescuers in saving people lives after an earthquake or natural disaster in the future,” Scaramuzza says.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.