DARPA-Funded Researchers Have Tested a Drone That Can Learn

By Adam Clark Estes on at

Almost seven years ago, we learned that DARPA was investing millions of dollars in neuromorphic chips. That's a fancy term for a computer chip that mimics a biological cortex — a brain chip. Today, researchers are getting closer. And of course, they're putting those brain chips in drones.

Responding to DARPA's challenge, HRL Laboratories' Center for Neural and Emergent Systems just tested a tiny drone with a prototype neuromorphic chip. The drone packs 576 silicon neurons that communicate through spikes in electricity and respond to data from optical, ultrasound, and infrared sensors. And thanks to that brain-like chip, the little robot doesn't necessarily need a human to tell it what to do. It can learn and act on its own.

It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, a tiny aircraft that flies around deciding what to surveil or, more frighteningly, what to shoot. MIT's Technology Review explains how the test worked:

The first time the drone was flown into each room, the unique pattern of incoming sensor data from the walls, furniture, and other objects caused a pattern of electrical activity in the neurons that the chip had never experienced before. That triggered it to report that it was in a new space, and also caused the ways its neurons connected to one another to change, in a crude mimic of learning in a real brain. Those changes meant that next time the craft entered the same room, it recognised it and signalled as such.

So that's pretty cool. No seriously, that kind of technological prowess is nothing short of astonishing. However, it could be said that a future full of drones with tiny electronic brains is a little bit frightening. [Tech Review]