Can artificial intelligence fly a drone? Researchers are finding out

August 28, 2017  - By

Can artificial intelligence fly a drone? Can a drone catch thermals the way birds do?

Microsoft researchers are partnering with the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) and the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS) to find out.

The artificially intelligent UAS being tested at the Nevada UAS Test Site is a 16 ½ -foot, 12 ½- pound sailplane. The sailplane relies on a battery to run onboard computational equipment and controls such as the rudder, plus radios to communicate with the ground.

It also has a motor so that a pilot can take over manual operation when necessary.

But once it’s up in the air, the UAS demonstrated its ability to operate on its own, finding and using thermals to travel without the aid of the motor or a person.

Simple and complex UAS testing was conducted at the Hawthorne Advanced Drone Multiplex (HADM) Test Range located at Hawthorne, Nevada. HADM is a 230-square mile area where a variety of UAS applications can be tested, including artificial intelligence (AI).

NIAS manages the FAA-designated Nevada UAS Test Site, which includes HADM and other UAS test ranges across Nevada.

The Microsoft operation was based at the Hawthorne Industrial Airport where preliminary tests were made. Subsequent tests were conducted at an area east of Walker Lake around six miles from the airport.

The team flew three different sailplanes that reached an altitude of approximately 1,700 feet flying almost two dozen Nevada UAS Test Site Certification of Authorization (COA) flights Aug. 7-11.

“Innovative AI technology like what Microsoft tested with NIAS is clearly where the most dramatic global UAS Industry disruptions will occur,” said Chris Walach, test site director. “When you think of artificial intelligence or AI, there are many perspectives on the value-add to the UAS industry. Very evident to me, developing and testing AI, or machine learning technology, is going to have multiple applications that will significantly benefit the UAS Industry and the American way of life. This is one of the most exciting developments I have seen over the past several years in Nevada and globally.”

“Microsoft researchers have created a system that uses artificial intelligence to keep the sailplane in the air without using a motor, by autonomously finding and catching rides on naturally occurring thermals, like how wild birds stay aloft,” said Ashish Kapoor, a principal Microsoft researcher. “Birds do this seamlessly, and all they’re doing is harnessing nature and they do it with a peanut-sized brain.”

“Nevada wholeheartedly supports the growth of the Unmanned Aerial System industry, and teaming with global technology leader Microsoft to perform these Nevada-based tests speaks to our leadership role with the global community,” said Tom Wilczek, industry specialist for the Nevada Aerospace and Defense Industry for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “Governor Sandoval and our Legislature expect us to engage in the growth of transformative technologies and I am grateful for the opportunity afforded by Microsoft to team and to do just that.”


About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.