New software enables drones to search forests for lost hikers

Autonomous drones could be the future of finding lost hikers thanks to new software developed by researchers at a few universities. Drones equipped with this software are able to find and follow forest paths on their own, possibly finding someone who has become lost on the path. Once the lost hiker is found, the drone can alert rescuers and provide the location.

Lost hikers are nothing new, and are an issue that affects regions around the world. Dense forests are one place where adventurers commonly get turned around, losing their way and having to call for rescuers who may spend hours or days trying to find them. Drones, though, could drastically cut down the search time (and expense) while more rapidly traveling through the landscape.

We've seen research efforts that put drones in natural disaster environments, using them to search buildings, and this is similar: both face the same big problem. Such landscapes are complex and varied, and any mistake by the drone could result in it getting lost itself or crashing.

Researchers from the University of Zurich and the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence have addressed this issued with newly developed artificial intelligence software that equips drones with the skills needed to find and travel forest paths. This allows the drone to operate with a pair of cameras rather than a load of expensive sensors.

Images from the cameras are processed by the software, enabling the drone to find and then follow paths in forests made by humans. This itself isn't terribly easy, though, as some paths are very hard to spot, even for humans.

As such, the researchers trained the algorithms using a Deep Neural Network, feeding it more than 20,000 images of trails gathered from hours of hiking in the Swiss Alps. Testing found the drone to be a little more accurate at spotting a path than humans, getting it right 85% of the time rather than 82% for humans.

Said the institute's director Luca Maria:

Many technological issues must be overcome before the most ambitious applications can become a reality. But small flying robots are incredibly versatile, and the field is advancing at an unseen pace. One day robots will work side by side with human rescuers to make our lives safer.

SOURCE: University of Zurich