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This Drone Racing Team Won $1 Million in 12 Seconds

BY Isabella Lee
10 December 2019

Twelve seconds — that’s how long it took Team MAVLab to complete the track at the 2019 Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing (AIRR) Championships and win the $1million cash prize sponsored by Lockheed Martin.

Drone Racing League Prize

The team worked super hard on this and we are very grateful we were rewarded with this beautiful prize from Lockheed Martin. I would like to congratulate the other AlphaPilot Team finalists for making it this far, and I can’t wait to see how autonomous drone technology innovation will continue to evolve over the next few years.

—Christophe De Wagter, Team MAVLab Lead

The AIRR Championship took place at the Austin American-Statesman in Austin, Texas, and marked the final race of the AIRR Circuit.

About the Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing (AIRR) Circut

The AIRR Circuit is an autonomous drone racing series from The Drone Racing League (DRL) that accelerates AI innovation through futuristic sports competition. The series includes four events aimed to advance the development and testing of fully autonomous drone technologies.

The idea is to race high-speed drones through unique tracks without any human intervention. To do so, teams of technologists, engineers and drone enthusiasts work together to develop AI that can guide the drone through the racecourse without crashing.

Four hundred twenty-four developer teams applied to participate, representing over 80 countries. Lockheed Martin and DRL created a series of programming tests to narrow the field down to just nine teams. The selected teams included:

  • KEF Robotics, USA
  • UZH Robotics & Perception Group, Switzerland
  • RTB – Warsaw MIMotaurs, Poland
  • ICARUS, USA
  • Formula Drone, USA
  • MAVLab, Netherlands
  • Team Puffin, Sweden
  • XQuad, Brazil
  • Team USRG @ KAIST, South Korea

The nine teams competed in AIRR by developing AI that could autonomously pilot standard, custom-built DRL RacerAI drones the fastest. Teams deployed their code on their drone’s powerful AI-at-the-edge compute platform, the NVIDIA Jetson AGX Xavier, and watched from afar as the robots flew through large scale gates without any GPS, data relay or human intervention.

Beyond racing, the AI technology developed by these teams will also be studied for use in real-world applications including disaster relief, search and rescue missions, and space exploration.

Team MavLab Moves Up the Ranks from Underdog to Champion

Team MAVLab, the drone research lab of the Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands, proved to be the one to watch throughout the inaugural AIRR Circuit as they jumped the ranks, sped up their drone’s gate pass-through time by nearly 66% and enabled the DRL RacerAI to fly consistently farther than the others.

Though their drone had barely lifted off the podium and managed to spectacularly crash out across the first AIRR event in Orlando in October, they quickly innovated on their AI code during the mere weeks in-between all four races, working closely with Lockheed Martin and DRL mentors to push the boundaries of their AI technology. During the second and third AIRR races in Washington D.C. and Baltimore in November, Team MAVLab enabled their drone to navigate through gates and even finish the course.

At the Championship in Austin, Team MAVLab raced their autonomous drone through the track at a top finishing-time of 12 seconds – 25% faster than the second-place drone. Their victory set a precedent for future AIRR competitions, where constant innovation is required to drive speed and agility in autonomous flight.

Closing the Performance Gap Between AI and Humans

The DRL RacerAI is the first autonomous drone designed to defeat a human in a physical sport. At 7 lbs, a top speed of 70 miles per hour, and over 20 pounds of thrust, this drone is designed to support and accelerate AI racing performance.

Drone Racing League RacerAI

As a bonus lap, Team MAVLab participated in an AI vs. human-piloted drone race. Team MAVLab raced against DRL Pilot Gabriel “Gab707” Kocher, one of the best drone pilots in the world, for a chance to earn an additional prize of $250,000. Both flying the DRL RacerAI drone, Pilot Gab707 won the race, finishing in six seconds, just five seconds faster than Team MAVLab, showcasing the ever-closing gap in performance between AI and humans. But, for now, it looks like humans still have the upper hand.

[Related: Advice from One of the World’s Top Drone Pilots: An Interview with 2018 DRL Allianz World Champion Paul “Nurk” Nurkkala]

DRL will air highlights from the AIRR Championship on Sunday, December 29th at 4pm ET on NBC and via @DroneRaceLeague on Twitter. Connect with other drone racing enthusiasts and share your thoughts on Team MavLab’s recent win in this thread on our community forum.

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