Up, up, and away! Virtual reality and a new piece of clothing are allowing Swiss scientists, engineers, and robotics experts to change the way drones fly. Users who slip into the drone jackets can fly drones—arms outstretched like superheroes if they wish—just by moving their torsos.
Switzerland hopes to become the world’s “home of drones.” Developers plan for the country’s jacket technology to someday be used by rescue teams, farmers, movie crews, and beyond.
Jenifer Miehlbradt is a lead researcher at Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne (EPFL), the group developing the jacket system. Her team wanted a method that was “easy to learn,” she says. Researchers believed a different system would allow users to “focus on more important issues, like search and rescue.” The new system uses sensors embedded in the jacket to mirror body movements—and pilot a drone.
There’s a bonus. “Using your torso really gives you the feeling that you are actually flying,” Miehlbradt says. She demonstrates by soaring through orange-colored virtual reality (VR) clouds using just her body.
To begin, researchers at EPFL questioned the idea that joysticks and hand-operated controls were the only—or main—way humans could fly. They imagined body movements doing the work. That, they reasoned, would free up the hands for other tasks.
The jacket system is surprisingly easy to use, even if a bit dizzying at first. A motion sensor clicks into the back of a flexible, Velcro-strapped jacket. Adjustable metal bars serve a function similar to how Aaron and Hur held Moses’ arms up during the battle with Amalek. (Exodus 17) Today, the bars help reduce fatigue in pilots seeking a Superman sensation.
Test subjects sit in the middle of a ring of infrared cameras. Researchers affix infrared markers to their bodies and give them VR goggles. The subjects twist and shrug—avoiding obstacles in a VR landscape. As they do, markers show how their torsos move to fly a VR plane.
For more advanced flying, the group designed a data glove. The high-tech hand-gear allows users to take off and land in difficult conditions or locations.
Studies show that the torso system is easier to learn and more precise than a joystick.
Researchers will need to run more experiments before jacket-wearing pilots will launch drones to the skies. But the Swiss system appears on track to change the horizon of drone flying. Perhaps one day the small Alpine country will be as famous for drones as it is for chocolates and watches.