Flying a drone is fiddly business, requiring several sets of thumbs and the hand-eye coordination of a circus juggler. Unless you’re using the FlyJacket, that is. Developed by experts in human-robotic interfaces, it effectively turns your body into a giant joystick. To control the drone, you sway gently from side to side with your arms out, as if steadying yourself on a wobbly barstool. As a happy sideeffect, it also makes you feel like you’re flying.
That’s because the headset lets you see what the drone sees, which combined with the body control, tricks your brain into thinking you’re soaring like Superman. The idea is that you don’t just control the drone, you actually embody it, so whatever move you make translates directly into movement of the drone via motion sensors in the suit. It’s a slightly dizzying sensation, but spookily convincing, complete with whistling wind noise and a mild dose of nausea.
The suit itself is a soft exoskeleton and feels like a cross between a backpack and a tracksuit top. The joints are 3D printed and the mesh panels and Velcro straps were designed by textile experts in Geneva. The arm supports are essentially a pair of gas springs usually used to prop up a car boot. While holding out your arms isn’t strictly necessary, it helps to achieve a much smoother flight.
The FlyJacket was developed at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the EPFL, one of Switzerland’s Federal Institutes of Technology, where we were given a demo by one of its developers, the aptly named Matteo Machinni.
‘One of the main problems in robotics is interfacing,’ he says. ‘We have robots with 100 degrees of freedom, which we have no idea how to control. You’d need 20 joysticks just to keep them stable. But if the robot were to become an extension of yourself, suddenly that control becomes a lot easier. You don’t just control the machine… you are the machine.’
As a result, the FlyJacket is very intuitive, requiring no training whatsoever. Give it to a novice and within minutes they’re flying like pros. Currently, most large or commercial drones require two or three skilled operators: a pilot, a navigator and a supervisor. The FlyJacket reduces that manpower and increases the speed and ease of use. In some cases, that could be the difference between life and death.
That’s because aside from its recreational value, the FlyJacket has more practical uses. In search and rescue operations, for example, where speed is of the essence and professional drone pilots are unavailable. Or for firefighters who use drones to survey burning buildings. What’s more, the FlyJacket is very portable, so a pilot could suit up en route to the scene and have the drone airborne within moments. In fact, you could fit several in the boot of the Audi Q5 we borrowed for our wet and stormy drive to Matteo’s lab in Lausanne.
‘It’s simply a better interface with the machine,’ says Matteo. ‘The body of a robot controlled by the body of a human. You could even port the body control concept to other things. If you can imagine moving like a fish, or an ant… then in theory you could inhabit a robotic version of one.’
Words by Dan Read. Photographs by Christoffer Rudquist.