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Artificial intelligence

The next ‘Deep Blue’ moment: Self-flying drone racing

Spoiler: Coders wanted! And a chance to win more than $2 million in cash prizes.

Provided byLockheed Martin, in partnership with The Drone Racing League (DRL)


In 1997, IBM’s “Deep Blue” computer defeated grandmaster Gary Kasparov in a match of chess. It was an historic moment, marking the end of an era where humans could defeat machines in complex strategy games.

Today, artificial intelligence (AI) bots can defeat humans in not only chess, but nearly every digital game that exists. However, while we’re starting to see some progress with AI-proof-of concepts in motorsports, ping pong and even basketball, AI has yet to come close to beating humans in real-life physical sports.

Doing so will require a major technical leap from today’s state-of-the-art AI technology, advancing it to a place where AI can interact with, and make sense of, the physical world and unknown conditions, including physical contact from fellow racers or players – all while navigating a game strategy, race course, set of rules and other complex challenges.

What if I told you that threshold – the next “Deep Blue” moment in machine vs. human interaction – could be crossed later this year?

Lockheed Martin, in partnership with The Drone Racing League (DRL), the global, professional circuit for drone racing, is inviting teams of students, coders and researchers to develop, test and then race high-speed, self-flying drones that require no human intervention or navigational pre-programming.

We call it AlphaPilot, and we’re offering up over $2 million in cash prizes to whoever comes up with the smartest, fastest AI. Qualifications are happening now over on the HeroX platform. Over 300 teams have already registered – be sure to sign up before the March 8 deadline.

We’ll select the AlphaPilot teams in April. NVIDIA, the leader in AI computing, will provide contestants with its Jetson AGX Xavier, the most advanced solution for autonomous machines, and DRL will supply teams with standardized racing drones.


AlphaPilot Teams will come together later this year to race their fully autonomous drones through complex, three-dimensional, video-game-inspired tracks in DRL’s new Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing (AIRR) Circuit. At the end of the AIRR season, the fastest autonomous drone will go head-to-head against the 2019 Allianz World Champion from DRL’s human-piloted drone series – a showdown of human vs. machine in real-life, physical sports.

Why drone racing? It’s a great initial proving ground for AI innovation and self-flying drone technology. DRL has been called the “sport of the future,” and it’s followed by tens of millions of drone heads, gamers and tech enthusiasts around the world. It also blurs the line between the digital and the real, which will help AlphaPilot teams transition their tech from virtual testing environments to real-world deployments.  

MIT Professor Sertac Karaman, whose team has been working on autonomous drone racing for the past few years and developed the simulator software being used to qualify AlphaPilot contestants, agrees, calling the challenge, “an incredible testing ground for game-changing autonomous drone technology.”

“Lockheed Martin and DRL are bringing together a diverse mix of experts and giving teams access to the right mix of hardware and software tools, plus dedicated virtual and real-life training opportunities to put their code to the test,” noted Professor Karaman. “I believe strongly that this challenge will tremendously accelerate the development of autonomy technology for agile robotic vehicles – those that will save lives via autonomous agile maneuvering at the time of a traffic accident, for example.”

The applications for self-flying drones obviously extend far beyond high-speed racing. Autonomous flying technology promises to completely transform our approach to humanitarian aid, disaster relief and other situations that pose a potential threat to human safety but require quick and decisive action. Imagine a world where self-flying drones immediately deploy to assess natural disaster zones – even those in the most remote areas – determining needs and deploying the right humanitarian supplies in near real-time. Or, a world where self-flying drones can detect a forest fire at the outset, preventing it from ever destroying life or property. 

That future isn’t all that inconceivable. AI is already enabling incredible technology in deep-space travel. Take NASA’s latest Mars lander, InSight, which Lockheed Martin worked on. When InSight arrived at the Red Planet in November, the communications time delay back to earth was about eight minutes. That means the spacecraft had to execute its entry, descent and landing – also known as the “seven minutes of terror” – all on its own. Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky business has been flying an autonomous research helicopter for five years – technology we envision one day being present on all commercial and military helicopters as a “virtual second pilot.”  

Lockheed Martin has spent the last 100 years redefining the future of flight – pioneering groundbreaking innovations like autonomous helicopters and hypersonics to stealth and human deep-space travel. DRL has spent the last several years disrupting the sports world at the intersection of technology, entertainment and gaming. AI-enabled autonomous systems, like the ones AlphaPilot teams will develop, promise to disrupt our future in even more mind-boggling ways. Join us on this journey, and make your mark writing the script for the next 100 years of flight.



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