Lost in the woods? Send in the drones


Researchers are teaching drones to recognize and follow forest trails; they could soon be used to help find missing hikers.

Few things are scarier than losing one’s way in the wilderness – yet with the pleasure and benefits afforded by interacting with nature, it’s a common occurrence. Every year, thousands of people get lost in the forest or mountainous areas – in Switzerland alone emergency centers receive 1,000 calls a year from lost or injured hikers seeking help.

Which may be the reason why researchers from the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the University of Zurich have developed artificial intelligence software to teach a small quadrocopter how to get around forest trails all on its own. The success, according to a press statement for the research, means drones could soon be used in parallel with rescue teams to hasten the search for people lost in the wild.

"While drones flying at high altitudes are already being used commercially, drones cannot yet fly autonomously in complex environments, such as dense forests. In these environments, any little error may result in a crash, and robots need a powerful brain in order to make sense of the complex world around them," says Davide Scaramuzza from the University of Zurich.

But the idea has remained attractive because drones are relatively inexpensive, they say, and can be quickly deployed in large numbers. So how did the researchers teach a drone to navigate the trails?

The rescue drone observes the environment through a wee set of cameras – but rather than sensors, it uses super strong artificial-intelligence algorithms to interpret the images to recognize man-made trails. If a path is obvious, the software nudges the drone in the correct direction. "Interpreting an image taken in a complex environment such as a forest is incredibly difficult for a computer," says Dr. Alessandro Giusti from the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence. "Sometimes even humans struggle to find the trail!"

The researchers note that more work is needed before a “fully autonomous fleet will be able to swarm forests in search of missing people.” Luca Maria Gambardella, director of the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence notes, "Many technological issues must be overcome before the most ambitious applications can become a reality. But small flying robots are incredibly versatile, and the field is advancing at an unseen pace. One day robots will work side by side with human rescuers to make our lives safer."

While it’s fascinating, I think the last thing I’d want to see while hiking through the woods is a fleet of drones patrolling the trail. But then again, if I were lost in the woods, it actually might be the first thing I’d want to see.

For more on the details, see the research here.

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