Makram Chahine, a PhD student in electrical engineering and computer science and an MIT CSAIL affiliate, leads a drone used to test liquid neural networks. (Image: Mike Grimmett/MIT CSAIL)

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have introduced a method for robust flight navigation agents to master vision-based fly-to-target tasks in intricate, unfamiliar environments. The liquid neural networks, which can continuously adapt to new data inputs, showed prowess in making reliable decisions in unknown domains like forests, urban landscapes, and environments with added noise and occlusion.

These adaptable models, which outperformed many state-of-the-art counterparts in navigation tasks, could enable potential real-world drone applications like search and rescue, delivery, and wildlife monitoring.

The researchers’ recent study, published in Science Robotics, details how this new breed of agents can adapt to significant distribution shifts, a long-standing challenge in the field. The team’s new class of machine-learning algorithms, however, captures the causal structure of tasks from high-dimensional, unstructured data, such as pixel inputs from a drone-mounted camera. These networks can then extract crucial aspects of a task and ignore irrelevant features, allowing acquired navigation skills to transfer targets seamlessly to new environments.

“We are thrilled by the immense potential of our learning-based control approach for robots, as it lays the groundwork for solving problems that arise when training in one environment and deploying in a completely distinct environment without additional training,” said Daniela Rus, CSAIL Director and the Andrew (1956) and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.

“Our experiments demonstrate that we can effectively teach a drone to locate an object in a forest during summer, and then deploy the model in winter, with vastly different surroundings, or even in urban settings, with varied tasks such as seeking and following. This adaptability is made possible by the causal underpinnings of our solutions. These flexible algorithms could one day aid in decision-making based on data streams that change over time, such as medical diagnosis and autonomous driving applications,” Rus said.

The team’s system was first trained on data collected by a human pilot, to see how they transferred learned navigation skills to new environments under drastic changes in scenery and conditions. Unlike traditional neural networks that only learn during the training phase, the liquid neural net’s parameters can change over time, making them interpretable and more resilient to unexpected or noisy data.

In a series of quadrotor closed-loop control experiments, the drones underwent myriad tests, and the team believes that the ability to learn from limited expert data and understand a given task while generalizing to new environments could make autonomous drone deployment more efficient, cost-effective, and reliable.

For more information, contact Rachel Gordon at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 617-258-0675.