Boy pretending to be an aeroplane

Drones could be piloted with torso movements ‘like really flying’

Image credit: Dreamstime

A project based at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) is working to develop an alternative to joystick controls that will allow drone pilots to operate their vehicles using upper body movements.

According to the engineers, their research demonstrates that torso motions captured with a body-machine interface are more immersive, intuitive and precise for controlling drones than widely-used joysticks. 

This approach to drone operation leaves the head and limbs free. This could allow the pilot to gaze around and interact with their surroundings, mimicking the experience of flying naturally like a bird.

“Our aim was to design a control method which would be easy to learn and therefore require less mental focus from the users so that they can focus on more important issues, like search and rescue,” said Jennifer Miehlbradt, a doctoral student at EPFL’s Translational Neuroengineering Laboratory.

“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.”

Miehlbradt and her colleagues tested the feasibility of this alternative system by monitoring the detailed bodily movements of 17 participants as they followed the motions of a virtual reality (VR) drone. The engineers quickly established patterns of motion, finding that just four points on the torso would be needed to steer both VR and real drones around obstacles.

Next, the researchers compared this alternative strategy for control – using the four points on the torso monitored with body markers and external motion detectors – to control with a conventional joystick, testing for reliability and precision. They found that this approach improved the operation of the drones, and was considered simple and intuitive by the participants.

According to Professor Silvestro Micera, who leads the EPFL’s Translational Neuroengineering Laboratory, this approach could be used not just for drone operation, but also the operation of other non-humanoid machines such as other vehicles.

If this alternative system is to be adopted more widely and challenge conventional joystick controls, the EPFL engineers will need to develop a simple, wearable system which does not rely on external detectors. The team have already presented a prototype garment implementing this system.

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