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A.I. Piloted Drones Are Going Pro, But Can’t Beat the Humans Yet

October 8, 2019, 5:27 PM UTC

Professional drone racing league DRL is kicking off a tournament series on Tuesday featuring drones piloted by artificial intelligence rather than humans.

The nine participating drones will face off later on Tuesday at an indoor course in Orlando’s Addition Financial Arena, navigating around obstacles on their own at speeds around 90 miles per hour. After races in coming months at three more venues, the team with the fastest drone overall will take home a $1 million prize from sponsor Lockheed Martin.

The drones themselves are identical. But each will be installed with different software from the nine teams, chosen from among more than 400 entrants who responded to the league’s call earlier this year for computer vision and A.I experts.

The Drone Racing League, which first took flight four years ago, has previously stuck to human-piloted drones. A dozen professional pilots at a time race identical drones around an obstacle course. Pilots like past league champion Jordan ‘Jet’ Temkin can earn six-figure deals. Races are shown worldwide via broadcasting deals with NBC, Sky, and other networks and backed by sponsors like BMW, Seagate and Lockheed Martin.

From the start, DRL CEO and founder Nicholas Horbaczewski wanted to include at least one A.I.-piloted craft per race. But he quickly discovered that no autonomous craft existed that could come close to matching the skills of human pilots. Drones are low-weight, low-power craft that have to operate at high speed in three dimensions and often crash. Those factors limit the computing power and sensors that can be included on board and complicate the task of programming the machines.

“We’ve always defined a high-performance, autonomous drone as one that can fly through a complex environment with the same skill or better than a human and that doesn’t exist,” Horbaczewski tells Fortune. “It’s just not out there yet. It’s not the state of the art.”

But last year, Horbaczewski discovered that aviation giant Lockheed Martin was looking for ways to stimulate software development for computer vision and A.I. piloting. So he struck a deal to jointly create a contest, dubbed the AlphaPilot Innovation Challenge, to attract programmers to develop cutting edge drone racing apps. All of the apps must run on identical hardware, designed by the league and powered by an Nvidia Jetson AGX Xavier chip similar to the one used in some self-driving cars and autonomous robots. While racing, the A.I. drones can’t use GPS or any remote guidance from humans.

The ultimate goal is to drive the drone tech landscape forward, Horbaczewski says. It’s somewhat analogous to professional auto racing leagues, where teams develop and test technologies that eventually trickle down to millions of consumer vehicles. “We’re using sport as an environment to improve drone design and drone hardware,” he says. “Ultimately, we see that going back into the market.”

The nine A.I. drone teams include people from a wide range of backgrounds and countries. KEF Robotics based in Pittsburgh includes three aerospace engineers, while the Warsaw MIMotaurs hail from Poland and include remote control flying enthusiasts and a former Google programmer.

The A.I.-piloted league will hold four events for its inaugural season, starting with Tuesday’s race in Orlando, Fl. Next month, the races travel to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. And the last race of the season will be in Austin in December. The champion A.I. drone will then race against a champion human racer. If the A.I. pilot wins, it’s team will win another $250,000.

(This story was updated on Oct. 10 to correct the years that Temkin was league champion.)