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. 

Cars

From drones to pickup trucks, Workhorse CEO believes the future is electric

Workhorse wants to make sure your next package gets delivered more efficiently. The Ohio-based company builds electric vans, and is branching out into drones, an electrified pickup truck, and a small personal helicopter.
Emerging Tech

7 amazing anti-drone technologies designed to swat UAVs out of the sky

We love drones but, for various reasons, we understand that they're not always welcome. Fortunately, there's a growing number of smart anti-drone technologies out there. Here are 7 of the best.
Emerging Tech

Wish you could fly? Here are the best drones on the market right now

To help you navigate the increasingly large and ever-changing landscape of consumer UAVs, here's a no-nonsense rundown of the best drones you can buy right now
Emerging Tech

Meet the Mantis Q: A drone you can control by yelling, waving, or even smiling

"Mantis, take a picture." Yuneec's new consumer drone, the Yuneec Mantis Q, responds to voice commands along with gestures and smiles. The 4K drone also integrates several different flight modes and safety features inside a one-pound…
Product Review

Asus ZenBook 3 Deluxe (late 2017) review

As our Asus ZenBook 3 Deluxe (late 2017) review shows, adding an 8th-gen Intel Core processor to an excellent thin and light chassis makes for a great combination.
Computing

Reluctant to give your email address away? Here's how to make a disposable one

Want to sign up for something without the risk of flooding your inbox with copious amounts of spam and unwanted email? You might want to consider using disposable email addresses with one of these handy services.
Computing

Logitech’s distinctive new ergonomic mouse looks as good as it feels

Logitech's first true ergonomic mouse sports an interesting tilted design that encourages less muscle strain. We spent some time with the MX Vertical to see how comfortable it is and determine whether or not we'd prefer it to a standard…
Computing

Both the Razer Blade and XPS 15 are capable laptops, but which is better?

We pit the latest Dell XPS 15 against the latest Razer Blade 15 to see which machine meets the needs of most people. Both are a fast, attractive, and well-built, but they still appeal to different users.
Computing

Use one of these password managers to stay safe online

The internet can be a scary place, especially if you don't have a proper passcode manager. This guide will show you the best password managers you can get right now, including both premium and free options. Find the right password software…
Mobile

Airport’s low-tech solution to digital chaos involves the humble whiteboard

A U.K. airport has suffered a major computer error, caused by data connection problems, which has stopped flight boards from showing crucial passenger information. The solution is wonderfully low-tech.
Computing

Here’s how to watch Nvidia’s GeForce event at Gamescom

Today is August 20, and that means Nvidia may showcase its GeForce RTX 20 Series of add-in graphics cards for gamers. We’re sticking with that name rather than the previous GTX 11 Series brand due to today’s date.
Computing

HTC breaks down VR barriers by bringing Oculus Rift titles to Viveport

HTC's Viveport store and subscription service will be opened to Oculus Rift users in September this year, letting them buy titles directly and take advantage of the monthly game-delivery service.
Computing

Dell’s new fast-refresh Freesync display could be your next great gaming screen

Dell has debuted a pair of new gaming TN displays, each offering high refresh rates and fast response times to gamers alongside Freesync technology. There are 24- and 27-inch versions of the new screens available now.
Computing

Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 20 Series starts at $500 and features real-time ray tracing

Nvidia revealed its new GeForce RTX 2000 Series of add-in desktop graphics cards for gamers during its pre-show Gamescom press event. The new family is based on Nvidia’s new “Turing” architecture focusing on real-time ray tracing.