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  • Mal McCallion

AI outpaces human champions in drone racing showdown

Updated: Nov 5, 2023

AI drone, Swift, developed by the University of Zurich, outperforms human champions in a high-speed drone race, marking a milestone in AI technology.

In a thrilling twist on man versus machine, an AI-powered drone has raced ahead of human champions in a high-speed drone race. This marks the first time an AI has triumphed in a real-world sport, designed for humans, by humans.

The victorious AI, named Swift, was developed by researchers at the University of Zurich. Swift soared to victory in 15 out of 25 races against world champions, even clocking the fastest lap on a course where drones reach speeds of 50mph and endure accelerations up to 5g.

"Swift's victory marks the first time that a robot powered by AI has beaten a human champion in a real physical sport designed for and by humans," said Elia Kaufmann, a researcher on the Swift development team.

Drone racing is a high-adrenaline sport where pilots navigate drones through a course dotted with gates, viewing the course via a video feed from a camera mounted on the drone. Swift trained in a simulated environment, using a technique called deep reinforcement learning to find the optimal commands to navigate the circuit.

During a race, Swift sends video from the drone’s onboard camera to a neural network that detects the racing gates. This information, combined with readings from an inertial sensor estimating the drone’s position, orientation, and speed, is then fed to a second neural network that works out what commands to send to the drone.

Despite Swift's impressive performance, it's not invincible. It lost 40% of its races against humans and crashed several times due to environmental changes such as lighting. This groundbreaking development in AI technology has potential applications beyond sports. The same approach could help drones search for people in burning buildings or conduct inspections of large structures such as ships. However, the application in military contexts remains uncertain.

The races left the human champions with mixed feelings. "This is the start of something that could change the whole world. On the flip side, I’m a racer, I don’t want anything to be faster than me," said Thomas Bitmatta, one of the human champions.

This race marks a significant milestone in AI technology, showing that AI is not just for board games and video games anymore. It's ready to take on the real world.

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