How to Fly a Drone With Your Body

For real and simulated drones, piloting with torso movements outperforms a joystick every time—and it’s easier to learn

Using only the movements of one’s torso to pilot a drone is more intuitive—and more precise—than a joystick, according to new research from engineers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland.

The technique, tested in virtual reality and with real drones, requires less mental focus from the pilot and frees up their head and limbs. So, for instance, a drone operator at a natural disaster site or on a search and rescue mission could concentrate on looking around and analyzing visual information rather than controlling the flight path of the drone.

The team also found that torso control is easier to learn and more intuitive than a traditional joystick for most people.

“It’s not that a joystick does not work—pilots for drone racing do amazing things with their joysticks—but we’ve noticed that for some people, it can be difficult to learn and you have to be really focused while you’re doing it,” says study author Jenifer Miehlbradt, a graduate student at EPFL.

In a series of experiments described this week in the journal PNAS, a team led by Miehlbradt and EPFL neuroengineer Silvestro Micera set out to come up with an alternative, easier way to pilot a drone.

First, they stuck over a dozen infrared markers all over the upper body of 17 volunteers and asked them to follow a virtual drone through a simulated landscape in virtual reality. “We asked them to follow the movements of the drone with their body in a way that felt natural to them,” says Miehlbradt.

One participant opted to fly the drone like Superman—with one arm extended above his head—and another chose to “swim” through the air, but everyone else used either their torso alone or their torso and arms to glide like a bird.

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