Drone Racing League (DRL) to Begin Autonomous Drones Races

When Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company introduced the Model T in 1908, the world was given what was considered the first affordable automobile. As the competition for cornering the automobile industry began, so did interest in competitively racing these vehicles arise. Many early car races were established to prove the validity of automobiles as modes of transportation. The relationship between automobile development and racing of the early 20th century led to the dominance of today’s automotive industry.

Similarly, the dawn of the 21st century has seen the emergence of new technology, drones, that are shaping how the world operates. In actuality, drones were first developed around the same time as early automobiles. Finally, in the 1990s, with news of drones being used by the military, the world began to become familiar with them. It wasn’t until 2006 that commercial drones became available, though they were considered too expensive and cumbersome for widespread use at the time. One of the key factors that changed this came from DIY drone hobbyists who were racing drones in their backyards.

By building drones to meet the agility and speed demands of racing, these hobbyists proved that there was a way to develop drones that could be lightweight and cost efficient. This would in turn open up greater possible use cases for drone technologies. Today, the drone industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in the market, and drone racing is still helping push the boundaries of drone technology. In 2015, the professional Drone Racing League (DRL) was established.

Nicholas Horbaczewski, founder of the DRL, has always maintained that the DRL is first and foremost a company aiming to drive the development of drone technology. For this reason, the DRL recently introduced a new competition to its format, autonomous drone races. In this contest, the DRL invited university teams to develop drones that can navigate the complex race tracks of the DRL at high speeds. The winner of the completion would receive a lofty prize and go on to pit their autonomous drone against one piloted by one of DLR’s elite pilots. As of yet, there has not been an autonomous racing drone that can beat a piloted drone in a sanctioned DRL event. However, a team from the University of Zurich led by Professor Davide Scaramuzza has claimed that they have a drone that can autonomously beat a piloted drone.

Professor Scaramuzza and his team have written an algorithm that allows a drone to travel through multiple way points rapidly and autonomously. An obstacle course is uploaded to the drone’s computer. Then the system plans a trajectory path aligned for optimal speed without collision. “The novelty of the algorithm is that it is the first to generate time-optimal trajectories that fully consider the drones’ limitations,” Professor Scaramuzza explained. This means that the drone knows when to accelerate and slow down to complete a circuit without fail. “Our drone beat the fastest lap of two world-class human pilots on an experimental race track,” Professor Scaramuzza went on to say.

There are still some drawbacks to Professor Scaramuzza’s system. The main one is that it can take hours of programming to ensure the drone can complete a task that only lasts a few moments. This will be the next challenge for the team, one that could eventually lead to drones being able to autonomously navigate outside of racing arenas. While racing drones are highly entertaining, both Professor Scaramuzza and Nicholas Horbaczewski understand that the forum has a greater responsibility to the world. This responsibility is to encourage the development of drone technology to safely and efficiently make our lives better.

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