The Drone Racing League (DRL) has been publicly racing drones since 2016, hoping to take the sport mainstream. After some success with human pilots, the league is expanding into autonomous drone races in which the drones navigate through courses solely with AI and no human pilot. Teams will be invited to compete for a variety of prizes that will total over $2 million.
The Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing (AIRR) circuit, as the DRL is calling it, will begin in 2019 and consist of four AI vs. AI races during its first season. At the end of each season, the DRL will stage a man vs. machine finale where the winner of the league’s human-based system will go against the best AI.
DRL CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski says to VentureBeat:
“The AIRR Circuit will be the premier, global autonomous drone racing circuit. It will challenge teams of the most talented AI engineers and researchers from around the world to design an AI framework that’s capable of racing a drone — without any pre-programming or human intervention. By having AI and humans compete on the same track and comparing their times, we’ll also be able to measure the gap in performance between man and machine, and see how quickly it closes.”
Cash bonuses will offer a strong incentive. The winning team of the AIRR Circuit will receive $1 million, and for the first drone from an autonomous team to beat a DRL human racer, a special $250,000 prize.
One of the DRL’s sponsors is the U.S Air Force, so it’s no surprise the company has partnered with the military and defense contractors again on this endeavor. Lockheed Martin, one of the worldwide leaders in drone technology and a chief supplier of military-grade drones for the Department of Defense, is backing the AIRR.
Speaking to The Verge, Horbaczewski said that the AIRR “has no ties to the military” and that “no Lockheed Martin IP or hardware will be used” in its races. However, each team will have a “mentor” from Lockheed Martin to guide teams through the competition and offer advice.
Like the DRL’s human races, it’s expected that the AIRR races will be influenced by video game-style scenarios. Current human-based races have themes based in games like Tony Hawk Pro Skater and jungle-based games. As for instituting a permanent Deep Blue scenario, where man is continually facing off against an AI, Horbaczewski thinks its anyone’s bet.
“In 2019, my money is on the human pilot,” he tell The Verge. “But by 2020? It’s anyone’s race.”