Microsoft helps speed up work on AI for autonomous drones and flying taxis

If autonomous drones and flying taxis are to thrive, they need AI that can handle a variety of conditions — and Microsoft believes it can help build that AI. The company has unveiled a Project AirSim platform to help manufacturers create, train and test the algorithms for autonomous aircraft. The Azure-based technology allows virtual vehicles to fly millions of flights through detailed simulations in seconds, measuring their ability to deal with various obstacles and weather conditions. A drone manufacturer can quickly find out if their machine is dodging birds or using too much battery power to counter strong winds.

Developers can use trained AI “building blocks” to get started, so they don’t need a lot of technical know-how. Users can create custom 3D environments using Bing Maps, but also have access to a pre-built library of cities (like New York City and London) and general locations.

Project AirSim is currently available as a “limited” preview already in use at Airtonomy and Bell. Microsoft plans to expand the simulation with physics, weather, and digital sensor replicas, including the option to provide custom physics models through a collaboration with MathWorks. The team is also “actively engaged” with governments and standards groups, and envisions a day when AirSim could help certify autonomous aircraft by subjecting them to rigorous digital testing.

The initiative will fail to address some of the biggest challenges of autonomous flight, including aircraft design and real-world testing. However, Microsoft emphasizes that its technology is flexible — it can help shape anything from delivery drones to eVTOL taxis navigating dense cities. When all goes well, companies spend more time deploying aircraft and less time working on basic functions.

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