A sensor-packed exosuit lets you fly a drone by pretending to be one

“Don’t just fly the drone; be the drone” sounds like the kind of quasi-philosophical line you would hear in one of The Matrix or Star Wars movies. In fact, it perfectly encapsulates a new project developed by researchers at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). They created a new drone control system which allows users to pilot drones by, essentially, pretending to be one.

OK, so stretching out your arms like wings and pitching or rolling your body may be a little bit embarrassing in public, but this could make drone piloting more intuitive than ever.

“In order to enhance the interaction between human and drone by making their control more natural and intuitive, we developed an exosuit, called the FlyJacket, which allows user to control a drone with upper body movements,” Carine Rognon, a researcher on the project from EPFL’s Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, told Digital Trends. “The user is wearing [an] exosuit and virtual reality goggles. The torso inclination, recorded with an inertial measurement unit embedded in the exosuit, is translated into drone command. As people tend to intuitively fly with the arm spread out, we included a passive arm support to the exosuit to prevent arm fatigue.”

flyjacket pilot drones exosuit

The FlyJacket experience begins when a person puts on the superhero-style suit. Once they are wearing it, Rognon says that most users quickly grasp the relationship between their own body and control of the drone.

“As the drone control is very intuitive, the user is directly immersed in the flight and can directly start to explore the environment,” she said. “You quickly feel as if you are the drone. The immersion is deepened by the fact that the interaction with the drone is direct as is doesn’t pass through a physical tool, such as when using a joystick. In addition, as people use their full upper body and not only their fingertips, they have kinesthetic and vestibular feedback due to their change of upper-body position.”

While this is still a research project at present, the team (led by EPFL’s Professor Dario Floreano) hope to turn the exosuit into a commercially available product. Currently, they are working to improve the immersion of the experience by implementing tactile feedback inside the FlyJacket to render the sensation of flying. This is being carried out in collaboration with the Collaborative Haptics and Robotics in Medicine (CHARM) Lab at Stanford University, a laboratory specializing in haptics rendering.

A paper describing the project was recently published in the IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters journal.