How We Trained a Deep Neural Pilot to Autonomously Fly the Skydio Drone

A version of this article was originally published on Medium. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE. We here at Skydio have been developing and deploying machine learning systems for years due to their ability to scale and improve with data. However, to date our learning systems have only been used for interpreting information about the world; in this post, we present our first machine learning system for actually acting in the world. Using a novel learning algorithm, the Skydio autonomy engine, and only 3 hours of “off-policy” logged data, we trained a deep neural network pilot that is capable of filming and tracking a subject while avoiding obstacles.

Drone Swarm Generates Smoke Screen for Huge Laser Displays

We’ve all seen drone displays—massive swarms of tiny drones, each carrying a light, that swarm together in carefully choreographed patterns to form giant (albeit very low resolution) 3D shapes in the sky at night. It’s cool, but it’s not particularly novel anymore, and without thousands of drones, the amount of detail that you can expect out of the display is not all that great. CollMot Entertainment, a Hungarian company that puts on traditional drone shows, has been working on something a little bit different. Instead of using drones as pixels, they’ve developed a system that uses drones to generate an enormous screen in the sky, and then laser projectors draw on that screen to create “the largest 3D display you have ever seen.”

A New Kind of Wing Dramatically Improves Flight for Small Drones

Drones of all sorts are getting smaller and cheaper, and that’s great—it makes them more accessible to everyone, and opens up new use cases for which big expensive drones would be, you know, too big and expensive. The problem with very small drones, particularly those with fixed-wing designs, is that they tend to be inefficient fliers, and are very susceptible to wind gusts as well as air turbulence caused by objects that they might be flying close to. Unfortunately, designing for resilience and designing for efficiency are two different things: Efficient wings are long and thin, and resilient wings are short and fat. You can’t really do both at the same time, but that’s okay, because if you tried to make long and thin wings for micro aerial vehicles (MAVs) they’d likely just snap off. So stubby wings it is! In a paper published this week in Science Robotics, researchers from Continue reading A New Kind of Wing Dramatically Improves Flight for Small Drones

Skydio 2 Review: This Is the Drone You Want to Fly

Let me begin this review by saying that the Skydio 2 is one of the most impressive robots that I have ever seen. Over the last decade, I’ve spent enough time around robots to have a very good sense of what kinds of things are particularly challenging for them, and to set my expectations accordingly. Those expectations include things like “unstructured environments are basically impossible” and “full autonomy is impractically expensive” and “robot videos rarely reflect reality.” Skydio’s newest drone is an exception to all of this. It’s able to fly autonomously at speed through complex environments in challenging real-world conditions in a way that’s completely effortless and stress-free for the end user, allowing you to capture the kind of video that would be otherwise impossible, even (I’m guessing) for professional drone pilots. When you see this technology in action, it’s (almost) indistinguishable from magic. 

SnotBot Drone Swoops Over Blowholes to Track Whale Health

1/4 The SnotBot drone passes over a blue whale at the moment of exhalation. Photo: Christian Miller/Ocean Alliance 2/4 A humpback whale rolls as a drone approaches. Photo: Christian Miller/Ocean Alliance 3/4 SnotBot passes over a surfacing humpback whale off the coast of Gabon, in Africa. Photo: Christian Miller/Ocean Alliance 4/4 The drone approaches a blue whale mother and calf in the Gulf of California. Photo: Christian Miller/Ocean Alliance Previous Next It’s a beautiful morning on the waters of Alaska’s Peril Strait—clear, calm, silent, and just a little cool. A small but seaworthy research vessel glides through gentle swells. Suddenly, in the distance, a humpback whale the size of a school bus explodes out of the water. Enormous bursts of air and water jet out of its blowholes like a fire hose, the noise echoing between the banks. “Blow at eleven o’clock!” cries the lookout, and the small boat swarms with activity. A crew Continue reading SnotBot Drone Swoops Over Blowholes to Track Whale Health

Caltech and JPL Firing Quadrotors Out of Cannons

As useful as drones are up in the air, the process of getting them there tends to be annoying at best and dangerous at worst. Consider what it takes to launch something as simple as a DJI Mavic or a Parrot Anafi— you need to find a flat spot free of debris or obstructions, unfold the thing and let it boot up and calibrate and whatnot, stand somewhere safe(ish), and then get it airborne and high enough quick enough to avoid hitting any people or things that you care about. I’m obviously being a little bit dramatic here, but ground launching drones is certainly both time consuming and risky, and there are occasions where getting a drone into the air as quickly and as safely as possible is a priority. At IROS in Macau earlier this month, researchers from Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) presented a prototype for Continue reading Caltech and JPL Firing Quadrotors Out of Cannons

Video Friday: DJI’s Mavic Mini Is a $400 Palm-Sized Foldable Drone

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!): IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

Zipline Deploys Medical Delivery Drones with U.S. Military

We usually don’t toss around the word “disrupting” in a technology context without some serious eye roll. But Zipline really has been disrupting medical supply delivery in Africa by using drones to bypass busy roads and hilly terrain to deliver medical supplies to hospitals and clinics in minutes rather than hours. We visited Zipline in Rwanda last year, and the system it has for delivering blood, blood products, and medication is versatile, reliable, and even (in some cases) more affordable than any other delivery method available.  It’s not at all surprising that the unique capabilities Zipline offers have caught the attention of the U.S. military, which (at least in terms of personnel ratios) is primarily a massive logistics and support organization and secondarily a fighting force. For the past year or so, the Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) has been working with Zipline to evaluate how their technology could be used Continue reading Zipline Deploys Medical Delivery Drones with U.S. Military

UAV-Based LiDAR Can Measure Shallow Water Depth

World’s first small-scale topographic and bathymetric scanning LiDAR ASTRALiTe’s edge™ is the world’s first small-scale topographic and bathymetric scanning LiDAR that can detect small underwater objects, measure shallow water depth, and survey critical underwater infrastructure from a small UAV platform. The edge™ can see beneath the water surface at depths from 0-5 meters and is completely self-contained with its own Inertial Navigation System with GNSS, battery, and onboard computer. It weighs about 5 kg and is designed for deployment on UAV systems for faster, safer, and more accurate bathymetric surveys. This patented 2-in-1 topographic and bathymetric LiDAR offers a centimeter-level depth resolution. There are numerous possible applications for this LiDAR, such as coastal mapping and surveying, infrastructure inspection, or even military logistics.  Importance of geo-referencing and motion stabilization “We needed a motion and navigation solution for our LiDAR. Our requirements included high accuracy along with low size, weight, and power” Continue reading UAV-Based LiDAR Can Measure Shallow Water Depth

Skydio’s Dock in a Box Enables Long-Term Autonomy for Drone Applications

The word “autonomy” in the context of drones (or really any other robot) can mean a whole bunch of different things. Skydio’s newest drone, which you can read lots more about here, is probably the most autonomous drone that we’ve ever seen, in the sense that it can fly itself while tracking subjects and avoiding obstacles. But as soon as the Skydio 2 lands, it’s completely helpless, dependent on a human to pick it up, pack it into a case, and take it back home to recharge. For consumer applications, this is not a big deal. But for industry, a big part of the appeal of autonomy is being able to deliver results with a minimum of human involvement, since humans are expensive and almost always busy doing other things. Today, Skydio is announcing the Skydio 2 Dock, a (mostly) self-contained home base that a Skydio 2 drone can snuggle Continue reading Skydio’s Dock in a Box Enables Long-Term Autonomy for Drone Applications