Just like an eagle, this autonomous glider can fly on thermal currents

An eagle soaring may look majestic but in technical terms, there is some impressive physics happening “under the hood” when they do. Specifically, eagles and other soaring birds take advantage of the upward currents of warm air, known as thermals, to help them more easily sail through the sky. What scientists don’t know, however, is how these birds discover and navigate said thermals. It turns out that artificial intelligence can help — and it could offer an assist to drones as an added bonus.

“This is a big challenge, as it is very difficult to conduct controlled experiments with soaring birds,” Jerome Wong-Ng and Gautam Reddy, two researchers from the University of California, San Diego, wrote in an email to Digital Trends. “Our approach was to instead teach a learning agent to soar in a realistic environment and see if this tells us something about how birds soar.”

This teaching was carried out using a type of machine learning called reinforcement learning. This type of A.I. creates A.I. agents which learn behavior based on the results of trial and error experiments. In this case, the researchers kitted out a glider with a flight controller able to implement the reinforcement learning-based instructions. Soaring to heights of almost 2,300 feet, the glider was able to figure out how to navigate atmospheric thermals autonomously.

“On a technical level, reinforcement learning hasn’t been applied to train agents to learn in the field,” the researchers continued. “In the field, the number of training samples we have is really low, and we have to come up with ways of using all available training data. There were also technical advancements regarding how to measure the local wind environment near the glider using onboard devices.”

In terms of practical applications, the researchers think their new navigational strategy could be employed to develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) able to fly for long periods of time without needing to recharge. In addition, it might be useful for creating an autopilot-style “recommendation system” for novice glider pilots.

“In this work, we focused on how to find and navigate a single thermal,” Wong-Ng and Reddy said. “But migrating birds glide from one thermal to another, and how to do this efficiently is a line of work we plan to explore in the future. Another line of research is to track soaring birds and figure out if their navigational strategy is similar to the one we’ve found in our study.”

Along with the University of California, San Diego, other educational institutions involved in this research included the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy.

A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal Nature.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: heat-powered watches, phone cases with reflexes

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

New brainwave reader tells teachers if students are concentrating

Massachusetts-based startup BrainCo has developed brainwave-reading headbands which can reportedly help reveal if students are concentrating in class. Here's how they're being used.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix, from 'Haunting of Hill House’ to ‘Norsemen’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.

Self-driving, electric, and connected, the cars of CES 2019 hint at the future

Car companies remained surprisingly quiet during CES 2018. But they spoke up in 2019. From electric hatchbacks you can buy in 2019 to super-futuristic mood-detecting technology, here are the major announcements we covered during the event.
Emerging Tech

Why wait? Here are some CES 2019 gadgets you can buy right now

Companies come to CES to wow us with their cutting edge technology, but only a few products are slated to hit the market right away. Here is our list of the best CES 2019 tech you can buy right now.
Emerging Tech

Drones: New rules could soon allow flights over people and at night

With commercial operators in mind, the U.S. government is looking to loosen restrictions on drone flights with a set of proposals that would allow the machines greater freedom to fly over populated areas and also at night.
Emerging Tech

Yamaha’s new app lets you tune your motorcycle with a smartphone

It used to be that if you wanted to tune your motorcycle’s engine and tweak its performance, you needed specialized tools and even more specialized knowledge. Yamaha’s new Power Tuner app changes that.
Emerging Tech

Short film celebrates New Yorker’s amazing robot costumes

New York City resident Peter Kokis creates stunning robot costumes out of household trash. His designs are huge, heavy, and extremely intricate, and never fail to turn heads when he's out and about.
Emerging Tech

In a first for humankind, China is growing plants on the moon

Having recently landed a probe on the far side of the moon, China announced that it managed to grow the first plant on the moon, too. Here's why that matters for deep space travel.
Emerging Tech

Ford’s sweaty robot bottom can simulate 10 years of seat use in mere days

Ford has developed 'Robutt,' a sweaty robot bottom that's designed to simulate the effects of having a pair of human buttocks sitting on its car seats for thousands of hours. Check it out.
Emerging Tech

CES 2019 recap: All the trends, products, and gadgets you missed

CES 2019 didn’t just give us a taste of the future, it offered a five-course meal. From 8K and Micro LED televisions to smart toilets, the show delivered with all the amazing gadgetry you could ask for. Here’s a look at all the big…
Emerging Tech

Want to know which drones are flying near you? There’s an app for that

Want to know what that mysterious drone buzzing over your head is up to? A new system developed by AirMap, Google Wing, and Kittyhawk.io could soon tell you -- via a map on your phone.
Emerging Tech

A Japanese hotel fires half its robot staff for being bad at their jobs

Japan’s oddball Henn na Hotel has fired half of its 243 robot staff. The reason? Because these labor-saving machines turned out to be causing way more problems than they were solving.
Emerging Tech

CERN plans to build a massive particle collider that dwarfs the LHC

CERN already has the world's biggest particle accelerator. Now it wants a bigger one. Meet the 9 billion euro Future Circular Collider that will allow physicists to extend their study of the universe and matter at the smallest level.