AI drone soars to victory in races against human champions


In Drone Racing, human pilots control miniature aircraft at breathtaking speeds through challenging courses from a first-person perspective. Now, AI is in pole position – with a clear lead and few limitations.

With Swift, researchers from the University of Zurich and Intel present an autonomous racing drone that has beaten human professionals in drone races. Swift, an AI drone equipped with cameras and other sensors, won five of nine races against Alex Vanover, four of seven against Thomas Bitmatta, and six of nine against Marvin Schaepper. Overall, Swift won 60 percent of the races.

Not all races ended in an AI victory: 40 percent of its defeats were due to collisions with opponents or gates, and 20 percent were due to slower speeds than the human pilots.

Pushing the limits, thinking ahead

Swift’s victories are still remarkable. The AI drone posted the fastest overall race time, even if it wasn’t faster in every section of the course, beating the next best human (A. Vanover) by half a second. The human pros had a week to practice on the track.



The track layout of human pilots (red) and AI (blue) in comparison. | Image: Kaufmann, E., Bauersfeld, L., Loquercio, A. et al.

How does Swift outperform humans? For one, the drone has a faster reaction time during takeoff. It also maintains a higher speed in the first turn and flies tighter through the turns, a successful strategy that likely reflects Swift’s longer-term planning.

Humans are still more robust

Swift also excels in head-to-head time trials. The AI drone is consistently trimmed for top speed. This reduces the likelihood of lap time fluctuations.

Human pilots, on the other hand, vary their lap times more because they adjust their flight strategy based on their position in the race. For example, if they are in the lead, human pilots may slow down to avoid a crash.

Swift doesn’t have that luxury: The AI drone chases the best time at the highest speed, whether it’s leading or trailing in the race.

Despite Swift’s success, the robustness of humans is remarkable, the research team notes. Human pilots can handle an accident at full speed and continue the race as long as the drone is still intact.


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