Google has been dipping it’s toes in almost every area of innovation and it seems like AI driven drones are it’s latest association which is making headlines. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, put their work to the test recently. The drones are nicknamed Batman, Joker and Nightwing. They raced their drones against Ken Loo a.k.a FlyingBear, a world class drone pilot, in an obstacle course.

The race capped two years of research into drone autonomy. They used camera’s to navigate their surroundings and then matched it to a pre-loaded map of the area. The drone was more consistent and accurate but the human drove with feel. He accelerated where he could. The human also won by a short margin.

“We pitted our algorithms against a human, who flies a lot more by feel,” said Rob Reid of JPL, the project’s task manager. “You can actually see that the A.I. flies the drone smoothly around the course, whereas human pilots tend to accelerate aggressively, so their path is jerkier.”

This drone finished the lap in 13.9 seconds while FlyingBear did it in 11.1 seconds. After a little practice, of course. Once he got used to the track he could navigate easily. The drive didn’t face this problem. This feature will be particularly useful if the drones are sent to navigate and rescue in disaster sites.

The drones can fly upto 80 mph but in the cramped track it could only reach around 40 mph. But Reid insists that they can fly much faster and may even compete (and win) in drone racing competitions one day.

The opportunities here are endless. NASA predicts that this will lead to drones being used to check on inventory in warehouses or assist search and rescue operations at disaster sites. They might even be used eventually to help future robots navigate the corridors of a space station. But it doesn’t just stop there. Robot are already in use in many areas like helping spinal trauma victims walk, helping kids with autism, respond to human emotions, cook or even be a rectal teaching assistant (ew). Now imagine what they could do if they can fly.

Almost every pop-culture reference to robots and drones involves a kind of dependency on them. Somehow we envision them being a part of our day to day lives in the future. But this fantasy has led to many people losing their jobs to automation. The solution here is to bring in human augmentation and make technology and humanity work together. After all, every piece of technology that we make is intended to improve our lives in some way, not to take over it.