I feel half-superhero, half-idiot. The jacket I’m wearing is letting me fly a drone around a virtual university campus just by spreading my arms and moving my body from side to side – like a kid pretending to be a plane. And a virtual reality headset gives me a perfect bird’s-eye view. But I’m sitting in the Swiss embassy in London, with the jacket’s creators looking at me across a table wondering if I’m going to fall off my chair.
The jacket is a prototype drone controller kitted out with sensors that measure body movement. This motion is then translated into the controls of an airborne drone – or, for my test-flight, a virtual drone in a simulator. When I move my body to the left, the drone moves to the left, and when I dive forwards and almost lose my balance, so does the drone.
The VR headset lets me see where I’m going. Headphones provide the sound of wind rushing past my ears and metal supports under my elbows keep my arms aloft for flight. I might look like a plucked chicken in a harness, waving my arms and staring at the floor, but from where I sit, I’m an eagle soaring in the sky.
“The goal is to make people fly without ever leaving the ground,” says Dario Floreano at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), who created the jacket.
Floreano believes that the jacket gives drone pilots a more intuitive way to control their aircraft, letting them focus on other tasks at the same time. Pilots on a search-and-rescue mission could communicate with the ground team more easily if they didn’t have to focus all their attention on using their hands to control a drone, for example.
Jackets vs joysticks
The team’s initial tests have shown that people learned to control a drone more quickly with the jacket than with standard joystick controls. What’s more, people handled stressful situations better with the jacket than with a joystick. For example, testers were more likely to get their drone through tight gaps between buildings using the jacket.
“People with a lot of practice are really good at controlling drones with traditional controls,” says team member Corine Rognon. “But with the fly jacket people reach the same level without the practice.”
The next version of the jacket will also provide physical feedback to the wearer. Cables running through the material that can be tightened or relaxed will give the sensation of turbulence. The cables will also be used by an AI co-pilot to tug people into the right body position for the optimum flight path.
“Piloting drones is a difficult thing,” says Karen Anderson at the University of Exeter, UK. It’s hard to keep track of everything like flight direction and telemetry read-outs while also thinking about what your fingers are doing on the controller. “Wearing a suit that can control the drone without that brain-eye-finger co-ordination gives a more direct way of sending commands to the flying machine,” she says.