MIT

Tricking drones with virtual reality to teach them to fly better, faster

Watch MIT's new system train drones in VR so they fly with fewer crashes

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UPDATED It sounds like a gaming fantasy come true. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are putting drones into virtual reality (VR) spaces, teaching them to avoid barriers while flying fast — but not giving them anything to crash into as they speed.

Researchers were intrigued by drone races of recent years, where pilots fly quad-copters through obstacle courses at speeds of 120 mph and above. In these races, like those flow by the Drone Racing League, people make the decisions on how drones fly. MIT wanted to see if they could train their drones to handle themselves solo and autonomously.

The problem, of course, is that drones flying fast through hurdles, arches and doorways can crash, and then need to be replaced. So researchers wanted to figure out if they could train the drones with fewer crashes, while still giving them complicated courses to fly.

Enter VR. No, drones aren't physically strapping on VR goggles and taking to the air. (Drones don't have eyes.) Instead, researchers are programming the drones so they think they're in a living room or bedroom while they fly. They virtually see obstacles around them, but those impediments aren't really there.

Researchers are testing the new system, and their drones, in a new drone-testing space in Building 31 on MIT's campus, which just underwent a $52 million renovation. During testing, drones are being sent images faster than a human can register and see, at 90 frames per second. (For reference, movies are typically shown (and shot) at 24 frames per second.)

MIT has named its system "Flight Goggles," which is set to be shown at the IEEE's International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia this month. From there, after a couple more years of training, researchers hope to enter the drones into one of the competitive drone racing events, to see if a drone, flying solo, can beat any of the human pilots on its own.


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