Flight controller synthesis via deep reinforcement learning
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Traditional control methods are inadequate in many deployment settings involving autonomous control of Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS). In such settings, CPS controllers must operate and respond to unpredictable interactions, conditions, or failure modes. Dealing with such unpredictability requires the use of executive and cognitive control functions that allow for planning and reasoning. Motivated by the sport of drone racing, this dissertation addresses these concerns for state-of-the-art flight control by investigating the use of deep artificial neural networks to bring essential elements of higher-level cognition to bear on the design, implementation, deployment, and evaluation of low level (attitude) flight controllers. First, this thesis presents a feasibility analyses and results which confirm that neural networks, trained via reinforcement learning, are more accurate than traditional control methods used by commercial uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) for attitude control. Second, armed with these results, this thesis reports on the development and release of an open source, full solution stack for building neuro-flight controllers. This stack consists of a tuning framework for implementing training environments (GymFC) and firmware for the world’s first neural network supported flight controller (Neuroflight). GymFC’s novel approach fuses together the digital twinning paradigm with flight control training to provide seamless transfer to hardware. Third, to transfer models synthesized by GymFC to hardware, this thesis reports on the toolchain that has been released for compiling neural networks into Neuroflight, which can be flashed to off-the-shelf microcontrollers. This toolchain includes detailed procedures for constructing a multicopter digital twin to allow the research and development community to synthesize flight controllers unique to their own aircraft. Finally, this thesis examines alternative reward system functions as well as changes to the software environment to bridge the gap between simulation and real world deployment environments. The design, evaluation, and experimental work summarized in this thesis demonstrates that deep reinforcement learning is able to be leveraged for the design and implementation of neural network controllers capable not only of maintaining stable flight, but also precision aerobatic maneuvers in real world settings. As such, this work provides a foundation for developing the next generation of flight control systems.
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