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No Joy in Joysticks? Try Driving Drones with Your Torso

Jenifer Miehlbradt demonstrates the torso strategy developed at EPFL | Supplied
Jenifer Miehlbradt demonstrates the torso strategy developed at EPFL | Supplied

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No Joy in Joysticks? Try Driving Drones with Your Torso

The joys of handling a joystick will soon be less so, given the new immersive technology of torso control for drones being developed by EPFL.

EPFL research has just shown that using your torso to pilot unmanned aerial systems is much more immersive – and more effective – than using the long-established joystick.

Piloting a drone in this manner involves movements of the users’ torso only, leaving the head free to look around, much 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,” says lead author Jenifer Miehlbradt of EPFL’s Translational Neuroengineering Laboratory led by Bertarelli Foundation Chair Silvestro Micera. “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.”

A detailed study of how people use their bodies to pilot a flying object, in this case a drone, and determine which movements are most intuitive and natural was undertaken by the scientific team.

This is a novel perspective of approaching the pilot’s challenges, achieved by monitoring the body movements of 17 individuals with 19 markers placed all over their upper body to monitor their muscular activity. Each participant followed the actions of a virtual drone through simulated landscapes that passed-by as viewed through virtual reality goggles.

As motion patterns emerged the scientists were able to establish torso-related strategies for piloting drones: they found that only 4 markers, located on the torso were needed to pilot flight simulators and real drones through a circuit of obstacles effectively. Scientists then compared their torso strategies to joystick control in 39 individuals, with the results showing that torso drone control outperformed joystick control not just on the parameters of precision and reliability but also required minimal training sessions comparatively.

“Data analysis allowed us to develop a very simple and intuitive approach which could also be used with other populations, machines, and operations,” says Micera, also at the Scuola Sant’Anna in Italy in Biomedical Engineering. He adds, “The approach significantly improves the tele-operation of robots with non-human mechanical attributes.”

The results do provide an innovative and completely immersive piloting strategy with focus on characterizing the relevant torso parameters and leave the head, limbs, hands and feet free to perform other actions, however, their proof-of-concept system still requires body markers and external motion detectors for functioning.

The next steps will include making the torso strategy completely wearable for piloting flying objects. The application range is huge, from flight simulators to piloting drones and even perhaps futuristic planes. Interestingly, a garment that implements the torso strategy into drone control without external motion detectors was also developed at EPFL based on the PNAS findings.

The results are published in today’s issue of PNAS.

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