It's Coders Versus Human Pilots in This Drone Race


On Friday night in an old newspaper printing plant in Austin, the future of drone automation lifted off, accelerated and flew, nearly fast enough to beat one of the best drone pilots in the world.

Gabriel Kocher, known in the professional Drone Racing League as Gab707, sat behind a net, wearing video goggles and steering his drone through five square gates on a short, curvy course. Next to him were four teammates from the MavLAB of the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. They had already programmed their automated drone, which resembled a mini Stealth Bomber. Now they were watching to see if their code had made the drone fast and accurate enough to defeat Kocher.

Courtesy of DRL

It was human vs machine and, for now at least, the human triumphed. Kocher guided his drone through the course in six seconds. It took MavLAB 11 seconds. Despite losing to Kocher, the four members of MAVLab—Federico Paredes Vallés, Guido de Croon, Christophe De Wagter and Nilay Sheth—outdid five other teams that qualified for the AIRR (Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing circuit) Championship and pocketed a $1 million prize from sponsor Lockheed Martin.

Afterward, Kocher was relieved to have won but conceded man’s superiority over the machine will not last forever. It’s a matter of time, experts say, before automated drones will whir past humans in increasingly popular competitions hosted by the Drone Racing League—and before they can use similar technology to handle complicated tasks in real life.

The latter possibility led Lockheed Martin to sponsor the AIRR circuit for coders, professors, students, physicists and pilots to power automated drones. Remotely piloted Lockheed Martin drones drop missiles, help police and firefighters, and assist in rescue missions for missing persons. Lockheed Martin’s Keith Lynn, manager of the automated drone challenge, says automated drones will be better equipped to handle complicated rescue missions in areas where transportation routes and communication lines have broken down.

Automated technology for drones has improved substantially in recent years because of better graphics processing units and a culture of open source code sharing. Still, the biggest developments in drone automation have been confined to the lab. The automated drones programmed for the racing series, flying at speeds approaching 70 mph, are unlike anything the general public has seen.

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“The things that have been that fast in the lab don’t go that fast in the real world,” says Chelsea Sabo, the technology lead of the contest and a software engineer at Lockheed Martin. “This is the first time that we’ve really taken a lot of this out of the lab and put it in a realistic environment and seen what it can do.”



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