Microsoft helps Red Bull pilot to fly faster

Lindsay James
Lindsay James
By Lindsay James on 26 October 2015
Microsoft helps Red Bull pilot to fly faster

Microsoft researchers have been busy in Las Vegas helping Red Bull Air Race pilot Kirby Chambliss fly the fastest, most efficient way possible.

Chambliss already races at a speed of more than 200 miles per hour, sometimes while upside down. But with control theory, robotics, machine learning and path planning, researchers are working to shave his time by a tenth to a hundredth of a second.

“You get two-tenths of a second here and two-tenths of a second there, and now you’re winning,” Chambliss said in an interview with Allison Linn, from Microsoft’s News Centre.

For the Microsoft researchers, the work also is also playing a significant role in their broader artificial intelligence and robotics research. Ashish Kapoor, a senior researcher with Microsoft who spearheaded the collaboration with Chambliss, told Linn that the challenges that Chambliss faces in making sure his plane flies through the narrow race pylons without hitting any edges is similar to what a robot might face in trying to navigate unpredictable terrain safely and efficiently.

As part of this project, Kapoor and his team have created a suite of algorithms and techniques that could be used to help robots and drones with those navigation challenges. It’s still a research project for now, but Kapoor said it’s a step toward tools that could be used in real-world scenarios.

Even as they work to improve Chambliss’s performance in each race this season, the researchers and the team both expect the data they have gathered to have the biggest payoff next season. That’s when they say they can really apply what they learned to make the major changes that could push Chambliss up in the standings.

Already, however, the data analysis has led the team to make some significant changes, beyond just how Chambliss approaches each race day. After analysing his performance relative to other teams, the researchers realised that the airplane itself might be putting them at a disadvantage relative to other teams.

So, they collaborated with researchers from The University of Kansas to add winglets, which modify the wings so they turn up at the ends and are intended to reduce drag. They also have modified the plane’s body to make it lower and more streamlined.

“I think for next year we’re going to be in a really, really good position,” Chambliss said.

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