Deep Drone Challenge: an EPITA student makes it to the finals!

Deep Drone Challenge: an EPITA student makes it to the finals!

Sponsored by Airbus and organized by brigkAIR, a Bavarian incubator, the Deep Drone Challenge is an international competition that requires participants to combine a number of technologies to design an autonomous drone.  Launched in 2020, the competition will end in June with a grand finale organized in Germany at the Airbus Drone Center. Ranking among the 14 top teams is the IONIS Team, which includes Eliaz Pitavy (EPITA class of 2022), a fourth-year IMAGE Major, partnering with David Boccara and Charles Colin, two fifth-year students at ESME Sudria.

Eliaz Pitavy

AI at the heart of the competition

Eliaz’s interest in the Deep Drone Challenge did not begin in France or Germany, but in India. Indeed, it was there, during his 2nd year semester abroad, that he met Charles, who was studying programming and computer science at the same university. The two students hit it off and a few months later, when Charles, then an apprentice at Airbus Helicopters, heard about this competition combining drones and artificial intelligence, he naturally decided to talk to Eliaz about it. “When he asked me to join him on this adventure, I thought about it one short day before accepting,” says Eliaz Pitavy.

The Deep Drone Challenge, launched to prepare for the arrival of CityAirbus, the “drone taxi” designed by Airbus and scheduled to be marketed by 2024, was extremely appealing to this future engineer with a passion for Machine Learning. “Participants in the competition must design an autonomous drone with two challenges: obstacle recognition and voice recognition,” explains Eliaz. Our team therefore decided to focus on voice recognition: our goal was to create an autonomous drone capable of communicating with a control tower. This tower must also be able to clearly communicate with the drone, just like a pilot in an ordinary aircraft.”

The IONIS team and the IONIS Bot
left to right: David, Eliaz and Charles

Thousands of audio files used

While continuing to study, the members of the trio worked for several months on developing and perfecting the drone they call the “IONIS Bot”, in reference to the IONIS Group, which includes both EPITA and ESME Sudria. “For this challenge, I’m helping David develop the drone’s code, especially the part that requires translating the commands coming from the control tower,” says the EPITA student. As these are voice commands, artificial intelligence is needed to transform them into text that the drone can understand. This is the main part of my work on the project.”  This project required many test sessions that are now bearing fruit. The “IONIS Bot” is capable of listening to an audio stream from a radio and relaying commands transmitted according to ATC rules (sentences that can be spoken by a real air traffic controller), processing the stream and flying based on this information and the surrounding environment. It can then rely on a fairly powerful neural network,  fueled and trained by several thousand audio files, most of which came from other students who chose to help with the project by recording these commands.

For Eliaz, the assimilation of commands was the leading technical difficulty of the challenge: “You have to keep in mind that sound coming from a radio is very ‘noisy’. If this noise does not disturb a pilot who is used to hearing given orders, it is immediately much more difficult to process for an artificial intelligence system. That was my biggest challenge: to ‘denoise’ the commands received from the radio in order to extract their content correctly.” But that wasn’t the only challenge the trio faced.

“Indeed, we had to stay focused and motivated after the challenge was postponed twice due to Covid-19 and experienced problems with our drone. It crashed and burned its engine… But now, it’s all in order and we are extremely motivated!”

IONIS Bot logo created by graphic designer Antoine Peltier

Next step: the finals in Ingolstadt!

It is this motivation and this “technical alchemy” between the three future engineers that has allowed the IONIS Team to reach the grand finale. The finals will take place in the city of Ingolstadt, known for its Airbus Defence and Space Center. A destination that the students were able to visit last April for a final test session in real conditions. Now, the team hopes that their drone will stand out at the event and earn as many points as possible – there are a total of 60 points corresponding to different criteria and the team with the most points wins the challenge. “In addition to the part of the challenge where everyone is rated in the same manner, using the same commands given by the organization, there will be another “freestyle” part that we are also counting on,” Eliaz confides.

The “IONIS Bot” will reveal other facets concerning safety, such as a parachute run by a specific system, a station that facilitates project management and mobility, with a monitoring interface that allows us to see where the drone is in real time, a management interface for the commands and, finally, an integrated Wi-Fi router. The team is also preparing something special that they are keeping secret until D-day. This gives hope to the students, who do not intend to stop here and are already planning to participate in other future competitions, regardless of the results of this challenge. “Besides, once the finals are over, we will most likely share our work with those who are interested in order to explain how the code is used and the drone was built”, stated Eliaz. The important thing is not only to participate, but to share.