Drone racing has only been a human sport for a few years, but artificial intelligence is already gunning to take over. Today, the Drone Racing League (DRL), which is one of the foremost organizations trying to turn drone racing into the next NASCAR, announced a new competition for teams to develop AI pilots for its aircraft.
With backing from aerospace firm Lockheed Martin, DRL wants to recruit developers from around the world, including students and drone enthusiasts. They’ll have to create an AI that’s capable of flying one of DRL’s standardized quadcopters through its complex race courses without preprogramming or human supervision. Teams will then compete in the DRL’s upcoming 2019 season by racing against one another in the same courses as human pilots as part of the newly designated Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing (AIRR) circuit.
Up for grabs is more than $2 million in prizes, with a one-off $200,000 reward for the first AI team to beat a professional human pilot. Is this likely? Probably not in 2019. A number of institutions are currently developing autonomous pilots for quadcopters, but even the most advanced ones lose to human pros. (They can certainly trounce amateur pilots, though.)
Speaking to The Verge over email, Drone Racing League founder and CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski said he thought humans would definitely have the advantage for now. “DRL’s pilots could easily defeat any autonomous racing drone today ... But the goal of AIRR is to close that gap.” To measure this progress, says Horbaczewski, DRL’s champion pilot will race the top-performing AI team at the end of each season. “In 2019, my money is on the human pilot,” he says. “But by 2020? It’s anyone’s race.”
Some observers may be raising their eyebrows at the involvement of a firm like Lockheed Martin in this project. After all, Lockheed is one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of military arms, and AI-controlled quadcopters have long been identified as one of the weapons of the future. AI drones could be used for surveillance and even offensive purposes, and many fear that the involvement of artificial intelligence could lead to mistakes on the battlefield. ISIS already uses modified commercial quadcopters to drop bombs on the Iraqi army (though there’s no indication these drones are steered by AI).
Horbaczewski explained that DRL partnered with Lockheed because the company is an “absolute leader in AI and autonomous flight.” He stressed that the new AIRR circuit “has no ties to the military” and that “no Lockheed Martin IP or hardware will be used.” He added that autonomous flight technology has many potential benefits in domains as varied as firefighting and space exploration. “To suggest that advancing AI piloting would be intrinsically linked to the military would be very short-sighted,” said Horbaczewski,
Nevertheless, corporations have a long history of using these sorts of competitions to develop ideas and scout for talent. Teams may be developing AI systems for racing, but this sort of technology is dual-use and can easily be turned to other purposes. Each team will have a Lockheed Martin “mentor” to guide their progress, and it would be no surprise if the top prize didn’t just involve cash from DRL but job offers from Lockheed as well.
AI systems may be racing drones in 2019, but who knows what they’ll be doing after that?