Drones learn to navigate autonomously by imitating cars and bicycles

January 23, 2018, University of Zurich
By imitating cars and bycicles, the drone automatically learned to respect the safety rules. Credit: UZH

All today's commercial drones use GPS, which works fine above building roofs and in high altitudes. But what, when the drones have to navigate autonomously at low altitude among tall buildings or in the dense, unstructured city streets with cars, cyclists or pedestrians suddenly crossing their way? Until now, commercial drones are not able to quickly react to such unforeseen events.

Researchers of the University of Zurich and the National Centre of Competence in Research NCCR Robotics developed DroNet, an that can safely drive a through the streets of a city. Designed as a fast 8-layers residual network, it produces two outputs for each single input image: a steering angle to keep the drone navigating while avoiding obstacles, and a collision probability to let the drone recognise dangerous situations and promptly react to them. "DroNet recognises static and dynamic obstacles and can slow down to avoid crashing into them. With this algorithm we have taken a step forward towards integrating autonomously navigating drones into our everyday life," says Davide Scaramuzza, Professor for Robotics and Perception at the University of Zurich.

Instead of relying on sophisticated sensors, the drone developed by Swiss researchers uses a normal camera like that of every smartphone, and a very powerful to interpret the scene it observes and react accordingly. The algorithm consists of a so-called Deep Neural Network. "This is a computer algorithm that learns to solve complex tasks from a set of 'training examples' that show the drone how to do certain things and cope with some difficult situations, much like children learn from their parents or teachers," says Prof. Scaramuzza.

Credit: University of Zurich

One of the most difficult challenges in Deep Learning is to collect several thousand 'training examples." To gain enough data to train their algorithms, Prof. Scaramuzza and his team collected data from cars and bicycles, that were driving in urban environments. By imitating them, the drone automatically learned to respect the safety rules, such as "How follow the without crossing into the oncoming lane," and "How to stop when obstacles like pedestrians, construction works, or other vehicles, block their ways." Even more interestingly, the researchers showed that their drones learned to not only navigate through city streets, but also in completely different environments, where they were never taught to do so. Indeed, the drones learned to fly autonomously in indoor environments, such as parking lots and office's corridors.

This research opens potential for monitoring and surveillance or parcel delivery in cluttered city streets as well as rescue operations in disastered urban areas. Nevertheless, the research team warns from exaggerated expectations of what lightweight, cheap drones can do. "Many technological issues must still be overcome before the most ambitious applications can become reality," says Ph.D. Student Antonio Loquercio.

Explore further: Drones can almost see in the dark

More information: Antonio Loquercio et al. Dronet: Learning to Fly by Driving, IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters (2018). DOI: 10.1109/LRA.2018.2795643

Related Stories

Drones can almost see in the dark

September 20, 2017

UZH researchers have taught drones how to fly using an eye-inspired camera, opening the door to them performing fast, agile maneuvers and flying in low-light environments. Possible applications could include supporting rescue ...

Drones learn to search forest trails for lost people

February 10, 2016

Researchers at the University of Zurich, the Università della Svizzera italiana, and the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland have developed software enabling drones to autonomously detect and ...

New technology making drones safer, smarter

April 7, 2015

Researchers at the University of Zurich have unveiled new technology enabling drones to recover stable flight from any position and land autonomously in failure situations. It will even be possible to launch drones by simply ...

Recommended for you

First proof of quantum computer advantage

October 18, 2018

For many years, quantum computers were not much more than an idea. Today, companies, governments and intelligence agencies are investing in the development of quantum technology. Robert König, professor for the theory of ...

Permanent, wireless self-charging system using NIR band

October 8, 2018

As wearable devices are emerging, there are numerous studies on wireless charging systems. Here, a KAIST research team has developed a permanent, wireless self-charging platform for low-power wearable electronics by converting ...

Facebook launches AI video-calling device 'Portal'

October 8, 2018

Facebook on Monday launched a range of AI-powered video-calling devices, a strategic revolution for the social network giant which is aiming for a slice of the smart speaker market that is currently dominated by Amazon and ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.