Watch: Self-Flying Drone Dodges Obstacles at 30mph

The rise of artificial intelligence and self-driving cars seems to point to a future where humans are rendered redundant by their creations. Now, a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a self-navigating drone that can outstrip a human-piloted one.

A video of the drone shows it reaching a speed of 30 mph while weaving in and out of trees and branches, leaving a human-piloted drone in its wake. The autonomous drone uses an algorithm that runs 20 times faster than existing obstacle-detection software used in other small unmanned vehicles (UAVs) and is built from off-the-shelf components costing around $1,700.

The technology was developed by Andrew Barry, a PhD student at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and MIT professor Russ Tedrake.

"Everybody is building drones these days, but nobody knows how to get them to stop running into things," said Barry in a statement. He said that "better, faster algorithms" were needed for drones to be able to function in busy real-world environments.

Barry's drone has a 34-inch wingspan and comes equipped with a camera on each wing, while the onboard computer consists of two smartphone-level processors. To avoid obstacles in its path, it uses a stereo-vision algorithm, which calculates depth from camera images by comparing multiple views of the same scene. The software, called Pushbroom, is available as open-source software online and analyzes data at 120 frames per second.

The algorithm also allows the drone to travel unencumbered, since "sensors like lidar are too heavy to put on small aircraft," said Barry, referring to a remote sensing technology that uses lasers to build a map of the surrounding environment. The autonomous drone weighs just over 1lb, while lidar sensors can add around 2.9lbs to a drone's weight.

The technology also only computes obstacles at a distance of 11 yards away, rather than carrying out intensive calculations every couple of yards that would ultimately slow down the flying machine. "As you fly, you push that 10-meter [11 yards] horizon forward and, as long as your first 10 meters are clear, you can build a full map of the world around you," said Barry.