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Drone Piloting That Feels Like Flying

16 July 2018
Jenifer Miehlbradt demonstrates the drone-piloting torso strategy developed at EPFL. Source: EPFL/Alain Herzog.

Piloting a drone with a joystick is one thing. Piloting it with the movements of your torso — well, that’s something else altogether. Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have brought the potential for an immersive piloting experience to a new level, allowing users to feel like they are able to fly like a bird.

"Using your torso really gives you the feeling that you are actually flying. Joysticks, on the other hand, are of simple design — but mastering their use to precisely control distant objects can be challenging," explained Jenifer Miehlbradt of EPFL's Translational Neuroengineering Laboratory, who served as lead author for a just-published study on the research.

The scientists wanted to design a control method that would require less mental focus, so that users could focus on more important tasks such as search-and-rescue operations. By focusing on the torso, the team’s concept allows the head, limbs, hands and feet free to perform other actions.

The researchers studied how people use their bodies for piloting, in order to discover which movements were most intuitive and natural. Compared to joystick control, torso movements were found to be more effective in terms of precision and reliability — and also required minimal training.

"Data analysis allowed us to develop a very simple and intuitive approach which could also be used with other populations, machines and operations," said Silvestro Micera, leader of the EPFL lab. "The approach significantly improves the teleoperation of robots with non-human mechanical attributes."

The researchers’ proof-of-concept system still requires body markers and external motion detectors in order to work; the next step is to make a completely-wearable torso-based controller. Applications could include piloting everything from drones to simulators to planes of the future.

The new research first appeared today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

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