After two years of research, NASA has gained greater insight into how artificial intelligence measures up against human abilities when it comes to drone operation. With a quadcopter race as the testing ground, a professional drone pilot and advanced AI technology competed to see who could cross the finish line with better speed, agility, and intuition.

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Testing Speed And Navigation

With Google funding NASA’s research and providing its Tango technology to map 3D surroundings, international Drone Racing League pilot Ken Loo put his skills up against autonomous test crafts Batman, Joker, and Nightwing. The race was conducted on a tight indoor track, where crafts flew at speeds of up to 40 mph around a series of obstacles.

Consistency Vs. Intuition 

The AI operated drones first beat out their human competitor when it came to navigating the course in a smooth manner, but they could not measure up to Loo’s ability to fly with varied speeds, intuition, and more aggressive racing tactics, which ultimately enabled him to win. The AI completed the race with more predictable action, and was able to avoid the errors that occurred when Loo found himself becoming mentally fatigued on the dense track.

NASA built autonomous drones to race a world-class human drone racer

Image Source: CNBC

Will AI Have Us Beat Soon?

Based on capabilities exhibited during the race, it’s clear that autonomous drones are not yet able to perform on the same level as those operated by humans, but the day they best us may not be far away. Currently, they are capable of consistent, error-free flight, and if there’s one way they clearly have human’s beat, it’s that they never get tired. However, AI programs still need to overcome issues that prevent them from responding as humans can. Technical problems, such as motion blur, can interfere with their ability to respond to surroundings at high speed and AI developers are working to overcome such issues.


When that happens, will drones graduate from reliable delivery and surveillance tech to flyers that give even the most experienced human pilots a run for their money? Tell us what you think in the comments.

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