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This AI powered glider is inspired by birds and needs no motor to fly

Nature has always inspired science and technology — from the invention of Velcro being inspired by ‘hard to remove plant burrs’ to the colour display of e-readers mimicking the sheen of butterfly wings in bright light. Now a team of Microsoft researchers is leveraging the capabilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to power sailplane gliders inspired by birds like hawks and eagles, that can fly without a motor.

These birds glide in circles by catching on to naturally occurring thermals, or bubbles or air that rise due to heat, prevalent in the atmosphere. Using the same principle, the researchers have managed to get a sailplane to fly without using a motor. Powering this feat are AI algorithms that autonomously enable the sailplane to find and catch rides on such naturally occurring thermals.

From left, Debadeepta Dey, Andrey Kolobov, Rick Rogahn, Ashish Kapoor and Jim Piavis prepare to launch a type of glider known as a sailplane in the desert in Hawthorne, Nevada. The sailplane uses artificial intelligence to find and rely on thermals, or bubbles of air that rise due to heat, to stay aloft. Photography by John Brecher for Microsoft.

The technology behind these ‘motorless gliders’ is complex – after all it has to do what a bird naturally does. And although birds do it with their peanut-sized brains, it’s no easy task for the glider to make real-time decisions in an environment in which you can’t know everything. It took months to develop complex AI algorithms that can both identify variables like air temperature, wind direction, among other inputs, and make real-time predictions about where it might find its next ride on a thermal.

The researchers have an ultimate aim for the sailplane — to use solar or wind  energy, which will make it possible for it to stay aloft indefinitely. This brings immense possibilities for a wide range of practical tasks, such as monitoring crops in rural areas or beaming internet services without any ground infrastructure.

To know more about how Microsoft researchers managed to achieve this, click here.