Piloting a drone with 'body english' beats joysticks hands down

For most, the method is easier and faster to learn than joystick control
Researchers developed a body-based approach to control drones which is more intuitive and precise than joysticks. (Alain Herzog/École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne)
Listen7:44

An intuitive approach to piloting drones

It's hard not to gawk at the aerial tricks drone racing pilots can pull off with just a joystick. But a team of researchers in Switzerland have found another way to pilot drones that's more like the way children play airplane - by turning and tilting their bodies.

Toy-sized unmanned aircraft have taken off in recent years and are being used for a variety of activities, including racing, as well as photography of stunning landscapes, and more vitally, search and rescue missions. But to cater to more people, Jenifer Miehlbradt believes it needs a more intuitive control system.

"If we look at pilots doing drone racing, it's very impressive what they manage to do," said Miehlbradt, a PhD candidate at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. "But for some other people, properly controlling a drone with a joystick can be difficult to learn and requires a lot of concentration."

To solve this problem, Miehlbradt and her research team developed a body-based approach she claims is much easier to learn and potentially even more precise than using a traditional joystick.

The experiment

She arrived at the idea by running a series of experiments. She recruited nine naive volunteers and first had them watch pre-recorded flight sequences of a simulated aircraft in first-person view — without giving them control over the drone.

She then asked the volunteers to do movements that felt natural to them as they watched the flight sequence and later spotted a pattern emerging from her test subjects: "the first large group was using only their torso. Their arms extended sidewards a bit like a bird but they were not actively moving their arms. Instead they were moving their entire body"

Another group was also using their torso but made additional movements with their arms.

Miehlbradt placed 20 sensors at different spots of each volunteer's upper body to track their movements, but found she only needed four of them since the movements were mostly focused on the volunteers' torsos.

After training the participants to control a virtual drone with their torso, she found that untrained participants did indeed outperform joystick control in both precision and reliability.

"All of them were proficient after three training sessions whereas with a joystick, some participants became really good, but about half of them never really managed to become precise enough. "

It's fun, but there are real applications

Miehlbradt describes body-based control as more immersive. "When you're flying [a drone] with your body, you have the feeling that you are really flying."

Pilots also have more freedom to look around and explore their environment because they no longer have to fiddle with their joystick.

"The main application we had in mind was for search and rescue missions where drones are being used more and more," said Miehlbradt. "You can imagine the case of a natural disaster and sending in a drone to see whether there are victims and to look for possible ways to escape. It's extremely convenient and much easier than sending actual people to search the scene."

A body-based approach would also lighten the cognitive load on rescuers who might be focused on not crashing into the building, she added.

"If the control is so demanding for you, it can be difficult to focus and to process the visual feedback you're getting to properly analyze what you're seeing," said Miehlbradt. "Our idea is to make the control easier and less demanding in terms of focus so we could help and enhance the rescue using drones."