Autonomous navigation of stratospheric balloons using reinforcement learning


Efficiently navigating a superpressure balloon in the stratosphere1 requires the integration of a multitude of cues, such as wind speed and solar elevation, and the process is complicated by forecast errors and sparse wind measurements. Coupled with the need to make decisions in real time, these factors rule out the use of conventional control techniques2,3. Here we describe the use of reinforcement learning4,5 to create a high-performing flight controller. Our algorithm uses data augmentation6,7 and a self-correcting design to overcome the key technical challenge of reinforcement learning from imperfect data, which has proved to be a major obstacle to its application to physical systems8. We deployed our controller to station Loon superpressure balloons at multiple locations across the globe, including a 39-day controlled experiment over the Pacific Ocean. Analyses show that the controller outperforms Loon’s previous algorithm and is robust to the natural diversity in stratospheric winds. These results demonstrate that reinforcement learning is an effective solution to real-world autonomous control problems in which neither conventional methods nor human intervention suffice, offering clues about what may be needed to create artificially intelligent agents that continuously interact with real, dynamic environments.

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Fig. 1: Station-keeping with a superpressure balloon.
Fig. 2: Effect of parameters on controller performance.
Fig. 3: Performance profile of the reinforcement-learning controller in simulation.
Fig. 4: Flight characteristics of controllers tested in the Pacific Ocean experiment.

Data availability

The data analysed in this paper are available from the corresponding authors on reasonable request.

Code availability

The code used to train the flight controllers is proprietary. The code used to analyse the generated data is available from the corresponding authors on reasonable request.


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We are grateful to J. Davidson for early ideation and prototyping. We thank V. Vanhoucke, K. Choromanski, V. Sindhwani, C. Boutilier, D. Precup, S. Mourad, S. Levine, K. Murphy, A. Faust, H. Larochelle and J. Platt for discussions; M. Bowling, A. Guez, D. Tarlow, J. Drouin, and M. Brenner for feedback on earlier versions of the manuscript; W. Dabney for feedback and help with design; T. Larivee for help with visuals; N. Mainville for project management support; R. Carver for information on weather phenomena; and the Loon operations team.

Author information




S.C. conceptualized the problem. J.G., S.C., S.S.P., P.S.C. and S.M. built the technical infrastructure. S.C., M.G.B., J.G., M.C.M. and P.S.C. developed and tested the algorithm. M.C.M., M.G.B., P.S.C., S.C., S.S.P., J.G. and Z.W. performed experimentation and data analysis. M.G.B. and S.C. managed the project. M.G.B., S.C., M.C.M., P.S.C. and S.S.P. wrote the paper. Authors are listed alphabetically by surname.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Marc G. Bellemare or Salvatore Candido.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

M.G.B., S.C., J.G. and M.C.M. have filed patent applications relating to navigating aerial vehicles using deep reinforcement learning. The remaining authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature thanks Scott Osprey and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Flight paths of the reinforcement-learning controller during the Pacific Ocean experiment.

The x and y axes represent longitude and latitude.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Flight paths of StationSeeker during the Pacific Ocean experiment, 1 of 2.

The x and y axes represent longitude and latitude, respectively.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Flight paths of StationSeeker during the Pacific Ocean experiment, 2 of 2.

The x and y axes represent longitude and latitude, respectively.

Extended Data Fig. 4 TWR50 and power consumption for different parametrizations of StationSeeker’s score function.

Grey points indicate settings chosen uniformly at random from the following ranges: wΔ [0.4, 0.8] (at close range), k1 [0.01, 0.15], gunknown [0.4, 0.6] and k2 [0, 0.2]. Each parameter was also varied in isolation (coloured points). Semantically interesting parameter choices are highlighted.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Distribution of returns predicted by the neural network.

Each panel indicates the predicted distributions for a particular state and action. The 51 quantiles output by the network are smoothed using kernel density estimation (σ determined from Scott’s rule with interquartile range scaling). The dashed lines indicate the average of these locations. The states with depicted distributions are from different times (0, 3, 6 and 9 h) into the July 2002 simulation. We use the largest quantile to estimate the return that could be realized in the absence of partial observability.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Average distances and pairwise distances for perturbations of 12 initial conditions.

a, Distance to station, averaged over 125 perturbations. These numbers highlight how the 1 January to 1 June 2002 simulations (May excluded) were challenging station-keeping conditions. The 1 January configuration, in particular, lacked wind diversity. b, Average distance between pairs of balloons (7,750 pairs). Our controller exhibits greater robustness to challenging conditions.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Scaled response of controllers to wind bearing and magnitude as a function of distance.

We use the derivative of the network’s action-value estimates, or response, as a proxy for the relative weight of an input. The two inputs tested here are the wind bearing and magnitude at the balloon’s altitude; the curves report the derivative for the ‘stay’ action.

Extended Data Table 1 Inputs to the flight controller
Extended Data Table 2 Hyperparameters defining the deep reinforcement-learning algorithm

Supplementary information

Video 1

: Simulation of 125 balloons station keeping in challenging conditions. Simulation of 125 balloons starting from perturbations of a single initial position, either using the learned controller or StationSeeker. The station is denoted by an 'X', and the 50 km range by a dashed line. Unlike StationSeeker, the learned controller is able to remain near the station irrespective of initial conditions, despite a highly challenging wind field. It achieves this by navigating away from the station to avoid strong winds and remain in a relatively calm area, visible from 0:06 into the video.

Video 2

: Simulation of 125 balloons station keeping in easy conditions. Simulation of 125 balloons starting from perturbations of a single initial position, either using the learned controller or StationSeeker. In this relatively easy scenario, the learned controller arrives at the station faster than StationSeeker and regroups more quickly after the second night. Its performance is generally less dependent on the initial condition.

Video 3

: Flight #16 from the Pacific Ocean experiment. This video depicts flight #16 (learned controller) over the Pacific Ocean. The right panel depicts the controller's observed wind column, with colour representing uncertainty. StationSeeker's proposed choices are highlighted in that panel. When possible, the learned controller remains stationary by remaining at the interface between opposing wind sheets. Its station keeping patterns make use of the full 50 km range, providing it with additional energy late into the night.

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Bellemare, M.G., Candido, S., Castro, P.S. et al. Autonomous navigation of stratospheric balloons using reinforcement learning. Nature 588, 77–82 (2020).

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