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An autonomous drone outsprints the world’s best pilots in a race for the first time.

An autonomous drone outsprints the world’s best pilots in a race for the first time.

HeyB in Chess, Go or Stratego – in strategy games, AI is unbeatable. Even in computer games such as car racing, adaptive algorithms now easily outperform the best human players. But what if computer programs left the simulation and gaming environments and had to face real physical competition? Here, too, smart algorithms seem to have the advantage. Researchers from the University of Zurich, in collaboration with scientists from chip maker Intel in Munich, have developed an artificial intelligence system that can beat the best pilots in a drone race for the first time.

In these, human pilots usually guide four-rotor robots, called quadcopters, through a three-dimensional obstacle course. Each participant sees the surroundings of their drone filmed by an onboard camera on their 3D video goggles. It can reach a top speed of 100 kilometers per hour and perform amazing flight maneuvers.

Drone racing is a huge challenge for AI, because drones that fly autonomously are constantly exposed to unexpected situations. Meanwhile, the on-board computer has to process countless data about speed, position and position in space so it can keep the drone on an optimal course.

Until recently, autonomous drones took twice as long to fly through an obstacle course than human-piloted quadcopters, unless they relied on an external positioning system to precisely control their trajectory. But that has now changed with the artificial intelligence system “Swift” developed by Ilya Kaufman and his colleagues.

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