Controller for a $60 drone
Controller for a $60 drone

External piloting is considered as one of the fundamental causes of frequent drone crashes.

Methods of controlling drone aircrafts are largely divided into internal piloting and external piloting.

Internal piloting refers to the method of controlling the aircraft through a first-person view or an egocentric perspective, sitting in the cockpit on board. Military drones are controlled from a pilot’s perspective in a control simulator (internal piloting), the same way as controlling an actual aircraft (Canan, 1999; Hing and Oh, 2008, 2009).

By contrast, external piloting indicates remotely controlling the drone from a third-person view or an allocentric perspective on the ground by means of equipment such as a remote controller. External piloting is generally used with low-cost drones for civilians, and the controller is similar to a wireless frequency remote controller (Cho et al., 2015; Self et al., 2006). 

External piloting is considered as one of the fundamental causes of frequent drone accidents (Chiappe et al., 2015; Williams, 2006). Whereas human pilots of civil drones are currently required to fly from an allocentric or drone-centric perspective, the option to control drones from their own egocentric perspective would be more embodied and natural (Kessler and Thomson, 2010). Thus, piloting from an egocentric perspective is physically better aligned with the flight space than piloting from a drone-centric perspective.

Therefore, dynamic discordance management between the two different viewpoints can influence flight performance (Chiappe et al., 2015; Gugerty and Brooks, 2001), and its failure can lead to accidents. To manage the misalignment, human pilots must employ mental rotation (Kaltner et al., 2014; Shepard and Metzler, 1971; Zacks and Michelon, 2005; Zacks et al., 2002)—the ability to judge the alignment of two objects and rotate their mental images in one’s mind—and align their egocentric viewpoint with the drone-centric one provided by
the controller.

The findings clearly favor the egocentric interface over the traditional drone-centric interface. However, the effect of the egocentric interface might be limited to novices. The possibility that training could minimize the need for mental rotation because experienced pilots could employ the drone-centric perspective was not be examined in the current study because the participants in the current study were all novices. Future studies are recommended to investigate how familiarity or proficiency plays a role in diminishing the misalignment problem.

I like to publish these articles when I can understand them because I think they get you to reconsider your assumptions about why things are the way they are. Hobbyists in the early days grabbed what they had, which were controllers they used to fly RC (radio control) planes. The metaphor stuck even though there are many aspects of flying a drone that was never considered in the original requirement.
I included the image at the top which shows the controller for a nothing fancy $60 drone, the DFD F183 which can be ordered from China. It is described as “Perfect for both, beginner and intermediate pilots.” Many are more complex.
I am going to bet you that this controller has more functions than you routinely use on your smartphone or laptop. All of this type of learning is muscle memory (kinetic). A person will never become proficient – and safe – as long as they have to think “now I do this.” It is unfortunate that we all must rely on the pilots to get good enough to react instinctively in the case of an emergency.
There is no doubt that this is a learned skill. The author cheerfully concedes that this is probably one of those skills that people get better at with practice. There is no doubt a correlation between the ability to walk and chew gum, and the amount of practice required to overcome the challenges of a drone-centric perspective.
I suspect that the industry has to some extent figured this out. If you look at the new controllers for the Mavic and Karma you will see that they have been greatly simplified to aid new pilots. It’s a smart strategy that is likely to keep people flying instead of storing their drones in the closet out of frustration.
UPDATE I came across this on LinkedIn. UAV Safety and the Elephant in the Room puts the challenge of drone-centric piloting in clear perspective. It also makes it clear that while technology can greatly shorten the learning curve, it does fail…

A few years ago now, I worked for a small UAV start up company who was developing a small quad for law enforcement. We worked closely with a Sheriff’s Department and taught several Deputies how to fly.

Based on what I witnessed, I think this is the “elephant in the room” that nobody is talking about.

Initially, our flight / navigation system did not have the “care free” algorithm and the pilot had to be very aware of quad orientation. Yaw (rotate) 180 degrees and suddenly none of the “sticks” on the hand held controller did what you expected, forward became backward and right became left. At that time, it took a new pilot about 40 hours of flying time to become reasonably competent.

At first, a new pilot would loose orientation and “freak out” as he was trying to avoid an object and would accelerate into it. We manufactured our own carbon fiber frames and rebuilt the training quad many times as a result. My analogy is it is like driving a car on ice. It takes training and experience to not hit the brakes when you are suddenly driving on ice. It took new pilots the same training and experience to not fly in the wrong direction after accidently loosing orientation.

Then the “care free” algorithm came along and the pilot didn’t have to keep track of orientation. With the “care free” algorithm, a new pilot could fly competently after about 15 minutes of flight time.

But for the “care free” algorithm to work, both the GPS and the compass have to be working well. It is not unusual for the compass to have problems when getting too close to power lines, large metal objects or other magnetic fields. When a new pilot has learned to fly with the “care free” algorithm, he may suddenly loose control due to a temporary compass failure.

If his controller sticks are suddenly “backwards”, he might accelerate directly into an object that he is desperately trying to avoid.



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