Pilots in drone races fly souped-up quadcopters around an obstacle course at 120 miles per hour. But soon they may be out of a job, as race organizers try to spice things up with drones controlled by AI.

What’s new: The Drone Racing League, which stages contests to promote this so-called sport of the future, recently unveiled an autonomous flier called RacerAI. The new drone includes Nvidia’s Jetson AGX Xavier inference engine, four stereoscopic cameras, and propellers that deliver 20 pounds of thrust.

What’s happening: RacerAI serves as the platform for AI models built by teams competing in AlphaPilot, a competition sponsored by the DRL and Lockheed Martin.

  • 420 teams entered and tested their models on a simulated track.
  • Virtual trials whittled the teams down to nine, which will compete in four races throughout fall 2019.
  • Team USRG from Kaist University in South Korea won the first race on October 8. The second is scheduled for November 2 in Washington D.C.
  • The series winner will take a $1 million prize. In early 2020, that model will face a top-rated human pilot for an additional $250,000 purse.

Behind the news: Drone Racing League pilots use standardized drones built and maintained by the league, and train on the same simulator used to train RacerAI. Races are typically a mile long and take place in event spaces across the U.S. and Europe.

Why it matters: Drone racing is fun and games, but the skills learned by autonomous racing models could be transferable to real-world applications like automated delivery.

We’re thinking: A recent DRL video shows that current models have a way to go before they graduate from passing through rings to making high-speed maneuvers. Human pilots still have a significant edge — for now.


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