It’s not surprising that the majority of drone controllers have a great similarity to game controllers. Most often drone controllers consist of a handheld device, like the DJI Phantom series controllers, using one lever to control altitude and direction, and another to tilt the drone along one of two axes. More recently smartphone apps do this job; either way, the learning curve can be steep even for those familiar with game control devices. One might suppose that the physical reality of smashing your drone if a mistake is made takes some of the risk-taking (and faster learning) out of the experience?
A new type of controller being developed by four Microengineering students at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, seeks to make drone piloting more intuitive. The device fits ergonomically into one hand, allowing users to simply lean it forward or sideways to direct the drone’s flight, and the altitude of the drone is controlled by a trigger on the handle. One design version incorporates haptic feedback, the technology that mimics the sense of touch in a device through forces or vibrations, enhancing the flying experience in a way that the pilot can “feel” the forces being applied to the drone in flight.
“We found that people need a few hours to get the hang of standard systems for flying drones,” says Timothée Peter, one of four founders of MotionPilot, the startup that has developed the new controller. Julien Perroud, a seasoned drone pilot and member of the Aéropoly committee, an association that promotes aeronautic sports on campus, tested the device and found it simple to use. Perroud tested the second of three modes – beginner, intermediate and advanced, which can be selected through a smartphone app. “In the beginner mode, the system will automatically control the drone’s trajectory to make the flying experience as easy as possible,” says Peter. The intermediate and advanced modes give experienced users more of a challenge, allowing for increasing user control and freedom..
“Switching from the old controller to the joystick was a snap. The joystick becomes second nature – you forget you’re piloting a drone. It’s a major improvement,” said Julien Perroud, a seasoned drone pilot and member of the Aéropoly committee, an association that promotes aeronautic sports on campus. “I’ll be curious to see how the founders incorporate all the features of a handheld control device in this new design.”
The new haptic feedback design allows drone pilots to experience a more realistic, immersive flight, which is bound to be a major improvement on current controls for drones which lack the sensation of flying. The MotionPilot package also includes FPV (first-person view) goggles for users to further enhance the experience. Bringing complementary skills to the table, MotionPilot’s four entrepreneurs, who are all under the age of 25, have entirely designed, engineered and fabricated the system.
So how did they do it? For now MotionPilot will keep their trade secrets under wraps, as they are currently in talks with drone manufacturers, and plan to take a complete kit to market by the end of this year. The package will consist of a drone, a joystick and FPV goggles, although initially without the haptic feedback mechanism. With several entrepreneurship awards and grants already under their belts, we are sure it will be a launch that will take off.