Faster than a speeding skateboard! Able to dodge tall trees while chasing a dirt bike! It’s … an upgrade in the making from an innovative drone maker.

What’s new: Skydio makes drones that follow and film extreme sports enthusiasts as they skate, cycle, and scramble through all types of terrain. The company used imitation learning to develop a prototype autopilot model that avoids obstacles even while tracking targets at high speed.

How it works (and sometimes doesn’t): Six fisheye cameras give the drone a 360-degree view. Separate models map the surroundings, lock onto the target, predict the target’s path, and plan the drone’s trajectory. But the rule-based autopilot software has trouble picking out details like small tree branches and telephone wires from a distance. At high speeds, the drone sometimes has to dodge at the last moment lest it wind up like a speeder-riding stormtrooper in Return of the Jedi.

The next step: The researchers aim to build an end-to-end neural network capable of flying faster while avoiding obstacles more effectively than the current autopilot.

  • They began by training a standard imitation learning algorithm on a large corpus of real-world data generated by the current system. But the algorithm didn’t generalize well to obstacles like tree branches. The researchers believe that’s because the open sky often provides a variety of obstacle-free flight paths, so even a good path often yields little useful learning.
  • So they switched the learning signal from the distance between the learner’s and the autopilot’s actions to the autopilot’s reward function. They also raised the penalty for deviating from its decisions when flying through crowded environments. This forced the model to learn that trees in the distance would mean dangerous branches up close.
  • The weighted penalty system trained the drone to follow a target effectively through lightly wooded terrain based on only three hours of training data.

Why it matters: The new software is still in development, and Skydio has not announced a release date. But the faster its drones can fly through crowded terrain without mishaps, the more its customers will be able to pull off gnarly stunts without losing their robot sidekick to a tree branch, and the more cool videos we’ll get to watch on YouTube.

We’re thinking: Now, if only Skydio could help the Empire’s stormtroopers improve their aim with blasters.

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