Training drones is an expensive job, because accidents are a daily occurrence as drones learn to reconnoiter various areas and crash into different natural or man-made obstacles. A team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided to do something about this issue. They developed a virtual reality training ground, where drones can visualize holographic objects and avoid them. However, the physical room is perfectly empty, allowing for hours of training with zero crashes and other similar incidents.
Using the Latest Technology to Train Top Technology
Drones are the latest and most affordable type of aerial reconnoiter vehicles. Belonging to the category of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) they are ideal for dangerous missions in areas affected by conflict or natural disasters.
However, advanced drones, equipped with various sensors and other devices, are not cheap. A significant part of the budget for drone missions is spent during the training phase. Now, thanks to the MIT researchers, drones can be introduced in the virtual reality training room, the scenario is fed into its computing unit and the team can test various approaches without having to stop, replace or repair the drone.
Virtual Reality Training Works Even Better for Machines Than for Humans
“We think this is a game-changer in the development of drone technology, for drones that go fast. If anything, the system can make autonomous vehicles more responsive, faster, and more efficient,” stated Sertac Karaman, Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT.
The virtual reality training solution, named “Flight Goggles”, is making its official debut at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation this week. However, we already know a few details about how it is built and how it works.
Flight Goggles uses a motion capture system software for image rendering, as well as various electronic parts which allow the team to control the drone and to process images quickly and send them to the drone.
The drone is capable of processing the VR images at the rate of 90 frames per second, three times faster than the human eye. This is possible through custom-built circuit boards which integrate an embedded supercomputer, an inertial measurement unit and a camera. All these hi-tech components are packed inside a 3D printed drone frame made of nylon and reinforce carbon fiber.
The testing area where the first trials took place is the new drone-testing facility in MIT’s Building 31. The enclosure is filled with motion-capture cameras which track the position and direction of the drone in flight.
“The drone will be flying in an empty room, but will be ‘hallucinating’ a completely different environment, and will learn in that environment,” explained Sertac Karaman the purpose of the exercise.
Machine Learning in Virtual Reality Space
Some of the tests performed by the MIT researchers in the virtual reality training room included flying the drone through an open window which was twice its size. Out of 361 attempts, the drone only virtually crashed 3 times. However, even if it crashed on all attempts, it would have made no difference for the drone, which would have still remained intact.
This type of machine learning combined with virtual reality training is not just for the sake of saving money on repairs. With this type of training program, drones can be taught to navigate among people in a crowded area without hurting anyone. This would make a strong point in favor of drones being safely used for deliveries (as Amazon has already started doing).
“One day, when you’re really confident, you can do it in reality, and have a drone flying around a person as they’re running, in a safe way,” said Mr. Karaman, adding that the experiments with drones in the virtual reality training facility will continue with various, increasingly complex scenarios.
You can watch one of them here: