London: Swiss scientists have developed an artificial intelligence (AI) software to teach a drone to autonomously recognise and follow forest trails to help rescue teams accelerate 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," said professor Davide Scaramuzza from the University of Zurich, Switzerland.
"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," professor Scaramuzza added in a paper that appeared in the journal IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.
The drone used by the Swiss researchers from the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the University of Zurich observes the environment through a pair of small cameras, similar to those used in smartphones.
Instead of relying on sophisticated sensors, the drone uses very powerful AI algorithms to interpret the images to recognise man-made trails. If a trail is visible, the software steers the drone in the corresponding direction.
"Interpreting an image taken in a complex environment such as a forest is incredibly difficult for a computer," said Dr Alessandro Giusti from the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence. "Sometimes even humans struggle to find the trail," Giusti said.
However, the researchers warned that much work was still needed before a fully autonomous fleet would be able to swarm forests in search of missing people.
"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," said professor Luca Maria Gambardella, director of the Dalle Molle Institute.
"One day, robots will work side by side with human rescuers to make our lives safer," professor Gambardella pointed out.