The newly developed software is based on an adaptive network. Credit: UZH, USI, SUPSIInstead of a pack of rescue dogs, image a team of emergency rescuers employing a drove of search-and-rescue drones.

Researchers from the University of Zurich, in Switzerland, have designed drones that have successfully and autonomously flown through a trail in a densely wooded area. Researchers hope that one day the drones could cut response times, and help save lives.

The drones observe the environment around them with a pair of small cameras—similar to those found on your average smart phone. Using a powerful processing system, the drone can then determine a flight path that follows the natural landscape through manmade trails and footpaths.

During trials in the Swiss Alps, the drones found the correct direction 85 percent of the time—while humans guessed correctly 82 percent of the time, according to the study.

Check out the drones in action:

Very powerful “artificial-intelligence algorithms” help the drones recognize man-made trails and steer through them, instead of relying on sophisticated sensors, according to the study. The system is called a “Deep Neural Network”—a computer algorithm that learns through trial and error, using “training examples” to help solve complex tasks.

The team hiked several hours along different trails in the Swiss Alps and took more than 20,000 images, according to the study. They hope the drones can be used in tandem with rescue teams to accelerate the search for missing people in the wild.

Autonomously flying drones in the open air is hard enough, but navigating through complex environments like a wooded area has been exceedingly difficult, researcher said.

“Interpreting an image taken in a complex environment such as a forest is incredibly difficult for a computer,” said Dr. Alessandro Giusti from the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a member of the study. "Sometimes even humans struggle to find the trail.”

Because drones are small and relatively inexpensive, drones can significantly cut the response time during emergencies, and reduce the cost, researchers say. But most importantly, the drones can be used in hazardous conditions that might be otherwise too dangerous for humans.

Find the journal article, here.