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01 September 2023

More bad news for the flesh-and-blood species on the planet...

Researchers in Switzerland have revealed that an AI-piloted quadcopter can beat human drone-racing champs.

Next step is likely an AI drone that can trash talk the losers.

"This is the first time an AI has challenged and beaten human champions in a real-world competitive sport," said Elia Kaufmann, an autonomy engineer at Redwood City, California's Skydio. Kaufmann worked on the AI drone while at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

Of course, computers have been kicking human butt in board and card games for decades. Something like a drone race, however, presents challenges, because it's difficult for AI to simulate real-world conditions—a "sim to real gap"—on the fly (so to speak), and the humans tend to be victorious.

So, us poor humanoids can take heart that the AI required some programming strategies before it could dust the human race champs.

For example, Kaufmann had to teach the drone what the racing gates looked like—a chore that required manually identifying them in many thousands of images. From there, more programmimg and code writing was undertaken so the drone could triangulate its position and orientation based on visuals captured by its cameras. 

In another "happy for humans" situation, a new technique called "reinforcement learning" was the key to really getting the drone on a winning streak. Basically, the researchers put the drone's control code into a virtual version of the actual racecourse, letting it "practice" for the equivalent of 23 days until it devised the fastest route possible. So, yeah—kinda cheating.

There's more good news. The AI drone champ is only a consistent victor if it races indoors on the exact same course for which it has been trained. Bring the drone to a track it hasn't practiced on, and get ready for a freak out. In addition, outside conditions such as wind, lighting conditions, and even collisions with other racing drones can cause an AI drone to freeze, spin, or crash.

While human drone-racing pilots aren't exactly toast just yet, non-human champions may be looming on the horizon.

Click to Read the Full Report as Published in Nature.
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