When designing an efficient aircraft, designers often look to birds for structural inspiration. To reduce strain and effort, some birds seek pockets of rising thermal to sustain flight and glide for long stretches of time. Adapting this approach allows modern designs to fly great distances without a motor. Extending these capabilities even further, Microsoft is keen on teaching artificial intelligence (AI) how to autonomous pilot a plane using this powerful thermal system.
As the sun shines throughout the day and warms the ground, the surrounding low altitude air also increases in temperature. Since warm air rises, it creates a column of vertically moving air, giving birds or aircraft extra lift.
When incorporating AI into the mix, the trick is to teach the autopilot system how to find these thermals. Attacking this task head on, researchers at Microsoft built a sailplane with a 16.5-foot wingspan dubbed the infinite soaring machine. Although the aircraft cannot fly forever at the current time, it’ll hopefully live up to its name in the near future.
The AI relies on information gathered by sensors that continually monitor altitude, wind direction, temperature, and more. After correlating all the data, the AI system can determine if it is rising in altitude, meaning it has found a thermal column.
Currently, the design still needs an electric motor for launch and relies on an onboard battery to power its servos. However, the team hopes solar cells placed on a larger version and wind-powered fuselage generators could provide all the needed energy.
Since this machine has the potential to soar indefinitely, many applications could benefit. Examples include crop monitoring in rural locations and delivering a mobile Internet service.
Watch the Microsoft team test their AI-controlled soaring machine in the video below.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense