NASA Drone Race Pits a Human Pilot Against Artificial Intelligence

Sunday, 26 November 2017 - 1:29PM
Technology
Artificial Intelligence
NASA
Sunday, 26 November 2017 - 1:29PM
NASA Drone Race Pits a Human Pilot Against Artificial Intelligence
NASA/JPL-Caltech
Out of the many, many projects that NASA is currently working on, a more earthbound task involves research into autonomous drones, with the goal of making a bot capable of navigating difficult terrain on our home planet, before possibly moving into space missions later down the road.

To test out their past couple years of artificially intelligent drone research, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California decided a race was in order. With their AI drone on one side, they invited professional drone racer Ken Loo to see if a human could race any faster. They then set up a course in the lab, and gave their AI drone a preprogrammed path to follow - Loo would, of course, rely on his own skills.

We'll avoid spoiling the results until you've had a chance to see it. Check out the race below:



According to JPL, the AI drones are built to racing specifications and capable of hitting speeds up to 80 miles per hour, but the obstacle course forced them to move at half that speed in order to navigate effectively. It turned out the drones were too cautious, and could have used that extra boost, because Loo ultimately won the day despite growing fatigued toward the end: he averaged 11.1 seconds per lap, while the AI averaged 13.9 seconds. 

The whole affair went down last month, but the JPL only just released the footage of their custom drones, named Batman, Joker, and Nightwing (they appear to be functionally identical). Loo may have won the race by a close margin, but the researchers were still more than happy with their Batman-themed drone's performance, which made use of Google's Tango program that JPL helped work on.

Because even if the AI drone navigated the racecourse slowly, it still did it with extreme precision, handling much more smoothly than Loo's jerky movements. JPL's Rob Reid, the project's task manager, said the following in a press release that came along with the footage:

Opening quote
"We pitted our algorithms against a human, who flies a lot more by feel. You can actually see that the A.I. flies the drone smoothly around the course, whereas human pilots tend to accelerate aggressively, so their path is jerkier."
Closing quote


So, this wasn't exactly a "slow and steady wins the race" situation since the AI drone lost decisively, but the fact that it could navigate those courses so consistently means it could soon be ready for bigger field tests. JPL wants to see it working in warehouses or aiding in disaster situations soon, but being at NASA could give it an even brighter future than that.

NASA has quite a few drone projects going right now, with potential plans to send them to Mars, to Saturn's moon Titan, or to someplace even further. It may not be "Batman" who goes to Mars (as great as it would be to hear NASA say "we've sent Batman to Mars"), but their technology is moving in the right direction right now.
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