Turning 40

The Seattle software giant has a long history in virtual flight – this November its Flight Simulator game will celebrate its 40th anniversary.

Project AirSim’s history is more recent, growing out of an open-source project of the same name that was used by a number of researchers.

Microsoft has announced that it will retire that project.

Users will still have access to the original open-source project’s code, the company told the BBC, but it will be archived, and instead the firm will focus its efforts on the new product.

The new proprietary platform, the company says, contains more out-of-the box features, and requires less technical knowledge to use.

However, Microsoft says its goal is to offer a free option, and says it will provide more information as the general release date approaches.

The project runs on Microsoft’s cloud computing platform Azure.

US firm Airtonomy was given early access to the platform.

Airtonomy uses drones to inspect infrastructure, such as wind turbines and power lines.

Chief executive Josh Riedy told the BBC that previously a “crew of three individuals repelled down those blades – the towers are at a height of 80m (262 ft), so not only was it a nearly a day-long job for three individuals, safety is certainly a consideration”.

Now the drones fly autonomously and can be controlled by only one person on the ground. “They simply need to know how to put batteries in a drone, and push a button,” he said.

The flight routines that enable this are developed in the virtual environment of Project AirSim, and Mr Riedy says a big advantage is the “simulated environment allows us to make mistakes” when working with critical infrastructure.

It also allows developers to imagine “what if” scenarios that would be unsafe to test in real life – such as what happens if a drone’s vision is obscured.

Microsoft hopes that it could also be used by civil aviation regulators to test systems – seeing how the drone performs in extremely heavy rain, or copes with a loss of positioning data.

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