Scientists use AI to create drone that flies alone through uncharted environments

Researchers at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, have developed a new autonomous navigation system that gives drones the ability to fly in complex, unknown environments at high speeds, without the need for have a human operator in control.

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With this approach, quads can find the correct path without using a map previously loaded into the system. An artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm enables collision-free navigation even in places with many hostile obstacles such as buildings and trees.

“To master agile autonomous flight, you need to understand the environment in a split second to guide the drone without collisions. This is very difficult for both humans and machines. Human pilots can reach this level after years of perseverance and training, but machines still can’t,” explains robotics professor Davide Scaramuzza, lead author of the study.

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High speed

The engineers trained an autonomous four-engine to fly through environments never seen before, such as forests, buildings and ruins. They managed to maintain a constant speed of km/h without hitting trees, walls or other obstacles that appeared from surprise along the way.

The objective was achieved using only on-board cameras and a computer system installed in the drone. The neural network learned to fly by observing a simulation model, consisting of an algorithm that guided a computer-generated drone through a virtual environment with several complex obstacles.

“At all times, the algorithm had complete information about the state of the four-engine with the readings of its sensors, being able to count on enough time and computational capacity to always find the best trajectory without colliding with obstacles”, adds Scaramuzza.

In the real world

As they don’t need an exact replica of the real world, these artificial intelligence systems can take advantage of high-performance simulators to learn complex navigation skills that trained human pilots would take years to develop, much faster.

AI system prevents the drone from hitting trees (Image: Reproduction/University of Zurich)
In addition to drones, this algorithmic navigation system could also be used to improve the performance of autonomous cars, or train AI devices for operations where data collection is difficult or impossible, such as under the sea and even on other planets.

“In a next step we want to improve the experience with the drone, developing faster sensors that can provide more information about the environment in less time, allowing them to fly safely even at speeds above km/h”, concludes Professor Davide Scaramuzza.

Source: University of Zurich

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