Drones are no longer crash-test dummies thanks to MIT’s new VR training platform

To better train drones and reduce the risk of damage to itself and its surroundings, MIT engineers developed a training platform called “Flight Goggles” based on virtual reality. This enables a fast-flying drone to train within a virtual environment while speeding through empty physical space. Given the nature of VR, these drones can now safely train for any environment and condition. 

Without Flight Goggles, drone training typically includes a large enclosed area with nets to catch “careening” vehicles and physical props including doors and windows. If they crash, that’s an added expense to the project due lost time, repairs, or a complete drone replacement. This type of training is ideal for slow-moving drones designed to scan an environment, not fast-moving models. 

“The moment you want to do high-throughput computing and go fast, even the slightest changes you make to its environment will cause the drone to crash,” says Sertac Karaman, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. “You can’t learn in that environment. If you want to push boundaries on how fast you can go and compute, you need some sort of virtual-reality environment.” 

To develop Flight Goggles, the team began with a “hangar-like gymnasium” lined with motion-capture cameras mounted on the walls to track the drone’s movement through physical space. This data is inserted into an image rendering program that generates a photorealistic virtual environment based on the drone’s position and perspective. The program then sends that combined data back to the drone.  

According to Karaman, the drone’s camera isn’t on, and instead “hallucinates” as it “sees” one environment while speeding through another, processing that visual feed at 90 frames per second. The drone used to test Flight Goggles was based on a 3D-printed nylon and carbon fiber frame, a custom-built circuit board, an embedded “supercomputer,” an inertial measurement unit, and a camera. 

For the initial test, the team created a virtual living room with a window twice the size of the drone. Flying at five miles per hour, the vehicle darted through the virtual window 361 times and “crashed” only three times. All throughout this test, the team tweaked its navigation algorithm so the drone could “learn on the fly” and avoid virtual walls. 

Of course, had the team used props instead of VR in this experiment, three repairs or complete drone replacements would be in order. But with Flight Goggles, the drone could “crash” thousands of times and the training would continue without costly repairs and downtime. 

But you can’t have a VR training session without testing the drone in a real-world scenario. The team built the same window within the facility, and then turned on the drone’s on-board camera. The result: It zipped through the physical window 119 times and crashed/required human intervention six times. 

While that doesn’t sound entirely successful, remember that the fast-flying drone learned to fly in virtual space not to mention zooming through the opening at 5 miles per hour. Karaman believes Flight Goggles could even safely train drones to fly around humans. 

Product Review

The Oculus Rift is cheaper, the Vive Pro is better. Is the original Vive still worth it?

The Oculus Rift may have brought virtual reality into the public eye, but HTC’s Vive, built in partnership with Valve, does it better. Does the Vive still represent the true future of virtual reality, or are there better competitors on…
Emerging Tech

Here’s a useful solution for saving clumsy drone pilots a few bucks

Parachutes can save drones when they unexpectedly fall from the sky. Among a number of such systems, Austrian firm Drone Rescue is this week showing off its latest design that automatically deploys when it senses trouble.
Emerging Tech

Here’s all the best gear and gadgetry you can snag for $100 or less

A $100 bill can get you further than you might think -- so long as you know where to look. Check out our picks for the best tech under $100, whether you're in the market for headphones or a virtual-reality headset.
Emerging Tech

From flying for fun to pro filmmaking, these are the best drones you can buy

In just the past few years, drones have transformed from a geeky hobbyist affair to a full-on cultural phenomenon. Here's a no-nonsense rundown of the best drones you can buy right now, no matter what kind of flying you plan to do.
Computing

Did your Windows 10 audio stop working after the update? Microsoft has a fix

Microsoft has released a small patch for its October 2018 Update build of Windows 10 following some users facing audio issues that resulted in no sound output at all. After this fix, that problem should disappear for good.
Photography

Adobe’s Premiere Rush is a video-editing app designed for social media projects

At Adobe MAX 2018, Adobe unveiled updates across the board for all of its Creative Cloud apps, from the release of Premiere Rush CC, a social-focused video editor, to Project Gemini, a digital drawing and painting tool.
Computing

World’s first 49-inch, dual QHD curved monitor tops Dell’s new line of displays

Dell's world's first 49-inch dual QHD curved monitor and other new displays come packed with innovative design features and technologies aimed at meeting demands of workflows everywhere.
Computing

Updated Intel processor benchmarks still beat AMD Ryzen competitor, but by less

After some controversy, updated Principled Technologies testing shows the Intel i9-9900K with a reduced lead over the AMD Ryzen 2700X in benchmarks, and with the AMD Ryzen 2700 X seeing better performance. 
Home Theater

HDMI 2.0b is a whole lot more than just a connection to your TV

HDMI 2.0b is the backbone for many of the latest updates in 4K UHD technology. And while a new cable standard can often involve a bunch of changes for consumers, that is not the case this time around.
Computing

Memory is still expensive, but Intel’s 9th-gen CPU lets you have 128GB of it

Intel's 9-series CPUs have a few exciting things going for them but for some, new support for double height memory modules with a maximum system capacity of 128GB could be one of them.
Computing

Your ‘Do Not Track’ tool might be helping websites track you, study says

New research from the "Do Not Track" features embedded in popular browsers are being ignored, opening up the possibility of consumers having their information targeted by specific ads based on their web histories and cookies. 
Computing

Which is best: The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme or the 15-inch MacBook Pro?

To try and help nail down the best 15-inch laptops in the world, we compared the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme vs. MacBook Pro 15 in a head to head that looked at their power, design, and portability.
Computing

Microsoft co-founder, Seahawks owner Paul Allen dies at 65

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen died on October 15 of complications from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The cancer survivor was best known for his entrepreneurial spirit and his frequent contributions to charities.
Product Review

Don't bother with any other 2-in-1. The Surface Pro 6 is still the best

The Surface Pro been updated to its sixth generation, now coming dressed in black and packing a quad-core processor. Outside of that, you’ll have to dig a little deeper to see where Microsoft has made some truly noteworthy improvements.