The Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) and the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS) recently teamed up with Microsoft’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) research team to test artificial intelligence (AI) on a sailplane measuring 16.5 feet and weighing 12.5 pounds.
The sailplane that Microsoft is testing in Nevada relies on a battery to run onboard computational equipment and controls such as the rudder, plus radios to communicate with the ground. It also has a motor so that a pilot can take over manual operation when necessary. However, once it’s up in the air, the aircraft demonstrates its ability to operate on its own, finding and using thermals to travel without the aid of the motor or a person, says NIAS.
Ashish Kapoor, a principal Microsoft researcher, explains, “Microsoft researchers have created a system that uses artificial intelligence to keep the sailplane in the air without using a motor by autonomously finding and catching rides on naturally occurring thermals, like how wild birds stay aloft. Birds do this seamlessly, and all they’re doing is harnessing nature – and they do it with a peanut-sized brain.”
Testing was conducted at the Hawthorne Advanced Drone Multiplex (HADM) test range in Hawthorne, Nev. HADM is a 230-square-mile area at which a variety of UAS applications can be tested, including AI. NIAS manages the federally designated Nevada UAS test site, which includes HADM and other UAS test ranges across Nevada.
The Microsoft operation was based at the Hawthorne Industrial Airport, where preliminary tests were conducted. Subsequent tests were done at an area east of Walker Lake roughly six miles from the airport. The team flew three different sailplanes that reached an altitude of approximately 1,700 feet; they put to use almost two dozen Certifications of Authorization on Aug. 7-11.
“Innovative AI technology, like what Microsoft tested with NIAS, is clearly where the most dramatic global UAS industry disruptions will occur,” comments Dr. Chris Walach, director of the Nevada UAS test site.